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Dairy farmers, grove owners miss chance to cash in

PALM RIVER

Cows still munch on the grass that developers were hoping to pave over for 900 homes along 78th Street. Tower Dairy's owners were going to sell the land, but the developers pulled out when the real estate market declined.

"That deal just kind of went south," dairy farmer Jeff Busciglio said.

Busciglio, 35, runs Tower Dairy with his father, Sammy Busciglio, 59, who grew up on the farm. It opened in 1950 and is one of only four dairies left in Hillsborough County, which had 39 dairies in 1984.

Like many farmers who were bombarded by land-hungry developers a few years ago, the Busciglios haven't received any offers lately. But faced with higher fuel and feed costs and new diseases and regulations, farmers who could have jumped ship before times got worse now find themselves forced to weather the storm.

The Busciglios' 250 acres were prime property during the real estate boom. The Tampa skyline is visible through a break in the treeline that surrounds their farm. Interstate 75 and the Crosstown Expressway are nearby. They know the land is valuable.

So did developers.

"They were going around and just throwing the cash around," Jeff Busciglio said. "It was ridiculous."

Now, they wouldn't be able to sell their land for what it's worth, Sammy Busciglio said.

Many farmers took the deals, especially citrus growers, who were facing tough diseases, and dairy farmers, who were up against stricter environmental regulations.

In Ruskin, Wimauma and along State Road 60 near Brandon and Bearss Avenue in Tampa, shriveled citrus trees — 2,952 acres countywide — sit abandoned by developers who don't want to break ground or owners who are waiting until the market rebounds.

In Valrico, a pasture is marked by a sign promising that a neighborhood called Grove Park is "coming soon." But the sign is faded and worn. The subdivision never materialized.

The Busciglios were working out a deal with Priority Developers, but it fell through when the demand for land started waning in 2006.

Other farmers felt the same sting.

Doug Sipple, of Sipple Dairy in Thonotosassa, said he actually sold the land a few years ago.

"I got the papers handed back to me," said Sipple, 65.

Developers were backing out of contracts, sometimes leaving tens of thousands of dollars in down payments with the farmers, he said.

"Fifty thousand dollars ain't nothing compared to the land," he said.

Sipple still works his dairy near Fowler Avenue and U.S. 301. But he's nearing retirement age and wishes he could have sold.

There's a saying that farmers have, Sammy Busciglio said: A farmer makes his money when he sells his land.

Another popular adage: Farmers are cash poor and land rich, said Stephen Gran, the director for Hillsborough County's Agriculture Industry Development Program.

"For many farmers, their land is their retirement savings," he said. "They've worked the land for their whole life, and for many of them their ultimate goal is to sell a portion."

Gran sees another problem with the market downturn. It will affect farmers' ability to borrow against their land, he said. Traditionally, farmers have pulled equity from their land to buy equipment that makes their farms more efficient and profitable.

"Ultimately, their land is their collateral when they go to the bank," he said. "If that land is not valued as highly, they have less ability to borrow."

• • •

The value of agricultural land in Florida had been rising for about a decade, according to annual reports by the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Developers were seeking rural home sites, causing the value to go up, the institute's researchers noted.

Early this decade, farmers were optimistic. Most of them predicted that values would continue to rise, the report states.

But the good times ended in mid 2006. Land sales slowed significantly in the second half of that year, according to the institute's report.

In 2007, sales continued to decline because of weak demand for large housing developments, investors' difficulties getting financing, and less buyer speculation.

And the outlook was pessimistic. The majority of farmers predicted that land values would drop in 2008.

• • •

Dairy farmers and citrus growers have been reporting smaller profits because of higher fuel and feed costs. Though food prices rose because of a spike in global demand and federal efforts to divert corn for ethanol, farmers say they're not seeing a lot of that money.

The Aprile brothers, who own a dairy in Riverview, say that even though milk prices are near $4 a gallon in stores, their profits are lower because a bag of feed costs almost twice as much as it did 18 months ago.

Things aren't looking good for citrus growers either. Orange juice prices have increased, but growers are getting less for their citrus, said UF economist Tom Spreen. Prices have gone down so much that economists are predicting the worst year for citrus growers since the 2003-2004 season.

These tough times, coupled with industry-specific troubles, gave citrus growers and dairy farmers more reason to cash out.

Dairies are in a unique position. When they started to pop up in Hillsborough County in the early 1900s, many were built near U.S. 301 to expedite deliveries to Tampa.

Now, dairies are sitting on what used to be some of the most desired land. Developers wanted the large tracts near major roads. The offers poured in.

But when the houses sprouted, so did new problems for the dairy farmers who didn't sell. To help dairies and the new nearby residents co-exist, the state increased environmental regulations. But the new rules add to the farmers' costs, said Gran, the county agriculture development official.

The Apriles say the upcoming state regulations could run dairies out of business in Hillsborough County. Environmental regulations that are in the works will be too expensive for medium-sized dairies like theirs, they said, but the land in Hillsborough County is still too expensive for farmers who might consider expanding their farms to bump up their profits.

Farmers would have to move to Georgia to make decent profits now, several dairy farmers said.

Citrus growers are facing a completely different problem: citrus greening, a deadly disease first detected in Florida three years ago.

There's no sure way to get rid of it, and growers say it's affecting most Florida groves. The best method right now is prevention, and that requires frequent spraying of pesticides and fertilizers, which costs money.

"It's a tough disease," said Travis Council, who grows citrus in Ruskin and Wimauma. "It's probably one of the toughest that's come along in a long time."

Council considered every offer from developers who approached him. He came close to selling, but then the offers stopped.

"If there was an offer, it probably wouldn't be the money we'd want," he said.

• • •

Still, Council isn't worried about the slump. He's a farmer, but he's also a businessman, he said. He's considering growing other crops to get him through the rough patch.

And although the outlook for the next couple of years may not be good, many farmers are sure the market will rebound. Until then, it's just a matter of getting by.

Some of them are updating their farms. At Tower Dairy, a new, more efficient milking parlor is going up. That should help them through the next five years, Jeff Busciglio said.

And, in a way, they're happy the deal on their land fell through. Farming is their passion.

"To be honest with you, I was kind of glad because me and Jeff weren't ready to leave yet," Sammy Busciglio said.

Others are making plans to pass farms down to their children, or choosing another commodity or location.

Anyway, farmers are used to hard times, Gran said.

"They'll have a disaster one year and they'll be out there planting their crops the next," he said. "They're the ultimate optimists."

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2443.

Dairy farmers, grove owners miss chance to cash in 12/18/08 [Last modified: Thursday, December 18, 2008 3:30am]

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