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Home-Grown

Quick. Name three crops that Florida grows more of than any other state.

Oranges, strawberries and tomatoes don't count.

Try eggplant, cucumbers and radishes. Yep, while oranges and other citrus fruit are the most familiar to the public, Florida is No. 1 in other crops as well. It takes agriculture promoters like Reggie Brown of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association a while to make sure he's listed them all _ escarole and endive, bell peppers, snap beans, watermelons. .

.

. They're just some of the produce from the state's farms, which produce a cornucopia that includes dairy products, beef and chicken, sugar cane, timber, flowers, houseplants and aquaculture as well as fruits and vegetables.

"We are the fresh produce basket for America in the winter," Brown said.

While Florida farming has been dominated by huge agribusinesses serving mass markets, there have always been small pockets of distinction _ blackberries in Umatilla, chestnuts in Gainesville. There are also encouraging signs of greater diversity. Unlike California, another agricultural giant, Florida does not have many cottage farms producing exotic boutique crops, but innovative farmers are experimenting with raising ostriches and alligators for meat or growing tropical produce or grapes for wine.

In "farm-gate" value _ that is, before processing _ Florida's agriculture is worth almost $6-billion. It's an industry of massive size and a surprise to people who may think Florida's biggest crop is condos.

Actually, condos are more visible only because they're planted along the coasts. But drive any two-lane state road across the peninsula and you'll see vast stretches of pastures, fields and groves, from the Everglades to the Georgia line.

Traditionally, warm weather and the fact that it's the only sub-tropical land mass in the United States were the chief advantages of Florida agriculture. The farmland is surprisingly diverse and supports a wide variety of crops; all but the coldest weather fruits and vegetables grow somewhere in the state.

In the far north, near the Panhandle, the crops are the same Southern standbys you'll find in Georgia. At the other end of the state, the crops are exotics, what you'll find in the Caribbean. In between grow most of the crops the rest of the country can't grow in winter.

But the more temperate winter weather doesn't make farming in Florida easy. While winter is warm, the days are short and the nights cold, and high humidity enourages disease and insects. Those conditions require special varieties of plants and ingenuity and hard work by the farmer.

Drive any two-lane state road across the peninsula and you'll see vast stretches of pastures, fields and groves, from the Everglades to the Georgia line.

Economically, the farmers are being challenged by overseas competition. With easier international trade, Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Chile and a host of other South American countries are sending produce to the United States in the winter, competing with Florida's farmers.

To answer those challenges, farmers here are experimenting with new varieties of plants as well as improved packaging and marketing.

To appeal to shoppers with more eclectic tastes, farmers are growing peppers in gourmet colors and hot stuff like jalapenos, cubanelle, finger hots and Hungarian wax varieties. Tomato fields are planted with a few more Roma, plum and cherry tomatoes, even some yellow tomatoes for salad lovers. More herbs and Asian products are being planted, too.

The biggest farmers are making changes to meet consumers' demand for convenience and thereby build brand loyalty. Farmers are raising baby carrots, which can be sold washed and scrubbed, and packing more lettuce and greens into salad mixes. Soon they will be shipping shucked, tray-packed sweet corn.

One of the biggest success stories has been at J.R. Brooks & Son in Homestead, which sells fruit raised by the growing number of farmers who have turned to avocados, limes and other tropical crops. Sales have more than quadupled in 10 years, with $76-million in sales of exotics to Asian and Hispanic immigrants and mainstream shoppers.

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