Farms of Fancy
Agriculture is big business in these parts and an important sector of our economy. When Northerners are craving tomatoes and other fresh vegetables during the winter months, Southwest Florida is harvesting them. Around the country, breakfast wouldn't be the same without a glass of OJ, squeezed from fruit grown in our groves. And this all means income for the producers and their workers.
Not so obvious among the large-scale vegetable and citrus operations are the varied specialty farms that have cropped up. Some local people running them are finding there's gold-or at least some green-in their earthy endeavors, which include some of the following ventures.
Herb and Nan List of Golden Gate Estates left their corporate lifestyle for one with promises of greener pastures. Their new business is situated on 80 acres of farmland, and a well-traveled path from their beautiful home to an air-conditioned barn system serves as their morning freeway.
The Lists moved here from Boynton Beach about two years ago to breed and raise alpacas. They had been coming to Naples for years and had friends who wintered here. "One night I was watching CNN and there was a story on a couple who had started an alpaca farm. I was intrigued, and ever since, have been hooked on alpacas," Nan List says. Her husband, Herb, found the property on the Internet. Then they made their move. They started with four and now have 32 of the llama-like South American animals known for their long, fleecy wool.
When it comes to the alpaca business, breeding is where the money is, but the cottage industry of manufacturing fiber is emerging, Nan List says.
She recently attended a show in Brooksville, a small town north of Tampa, where one alpaca fetched $86,000. "She had a wonderful bloodline," she says. The average price is between $26,000 and $28,000; one of the Lists' alpacas sold not long ago for $50,000.
The question is: Can alpaca farming continue to flourish, or will it go the same routes as emu, nutria and pot-bellied pigs, which were once the rage among some small farmers but never quite lived up to expectations?
Nan List counters that alpaca farming has grown significantly in the past 20 years. The Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association (AOBA) started with 87 members and 397 registered alpacas, increasing to its current level of 3,700 members and 50,000 registered alpacas.
One reason is the measure of quality; the alpacas are purebred and DNA tested, List says. "The bloodline is the most important for breeding as it drives the price," she adds.
Another driver behind the alpaca industry is its potential for fiber manufacturing. The cost of having a sweater made, for example, is between $60 and $100, but the piece can sell for $300. The animals are shorn and the fiber-similar to cashmere in quality and texture-is made into clothing or blankets.
Farmers typically provide fiber to companies for processing, and pay a nominal fee by the pound to process as they see fit. The goal of AOBA is to approach upscale stores and designers such as Neiman Marcus and Ralph Lauren to carry these high-end products, List says. And there are some retail catalogs that specifically sell alpaca clothing. She advises anyone interested in starting a ranch to "read, read and read"-especially useful trade journals like Alpacas Magazine, AOBA's official publication.
Money is helpful, too, Herb List adds. The start-up cost is about $150,000. This typically includes one herd sire and three bred females, three to five acres of land, fencing, irrigation, a pole barn, fans and food. "One of the nice things about alpacas is that they don't require much space. You can have six to eight alpacas per acre," Nan List says.
For the most part, however, raising alpacas falls within the realm of gentleman farming-more for pleasure than for profit. Breeders enter contests and vie for ribbons. Making money on alpacas requires a large herd. An Ohio man netted about $400,000 last year, for example, but his herd numbers about 80 and he has been in the business for a decade. Farmers who wish to turn higher profits must continue their efforts to grow.
Mostly, the Lists hope to share their newfound lifestyle with others and demonstrate how these animals can bring income, relaxation and peace The farm has a Web site and invites people to tour the farm. She's confident of her farm's future as a business. "I don't know that it's that risky. It is a waiting game," she says.
Nan's Alpaca Ranch-by-the-Gulf, 455-4229 or
What's the Buzz?
"I started getting interested in bees when I was 12," says Alan "Buddy" Walker, owner of Walker Farms in Fort Myers. "My uncle gave me two hives at $1 apiece and I still have them. But now I have about 1,000 hives." Walker and his wife, Joyce, run their bee farm with the help of one part-time worker. "You really have to love the business," he says. "We are constantly battling destructive insects, and having to find FDA-approved chemicals to battle them, but it's worth it. I may not be getting rich, but the business has allowed me to care for and support my family. Some years, of course, are better than others."
Walker produces and bottles many types of honey. "Our most popular varieties are orange blossom and saw palmetto," he says. Wildflower honey is great for allergies, he adds, but not that popular because some customers consider its flavor unpleasant.
Walker Farms sells most of its honey wholesale across the country to companies that repackage and sell it under other labels. "The honey is especially popular with bakeries," Walker says. "We also sell to local health-food stores in Naples and Fort Myers," which market the honey under Walker's name. What makes Walker's honey unusually good is his processing method. Larger processors heat the honey to a high temperature (about 160 degrees) and run it through microfilters. The process-called polishing-kills most of the harmless enzymes in the honey that give it flavor, resulting in a bland, homogenized product. Walker heats his honey to about 120 degrees and filters through nylon mesh using only gravity feeds-no pressure and no pump. It cleans the honey minimally and retains its flavor, Walker explains. Another source of revenue: rental of hives to vegetable growers for pollination."The income is not great, but every bit helps," he says.
Start-up cost for this business is about $250,000, Walker says. The Walkers' plans for the future include developing a Web site and focusing on more wholesale and retail sales.
Walker Farms, 543-8071
Harvest for Humanity
Traditionally, farms in the U.S. have depended on low-wage labor-often migrant and seasonal workers from other nations who live below the poverty level. Richard and Florence Nogaj sought to change this cycle after a visit to Sanibel Island. While on vacation from Illinois, they read in a local paper about the poverty in Immokalee, especially among its farm workers. "No one should be suffering like this," Richard Nogaj said. As a result, the couple established Harvest for Humanity, a not-for-profit ministry, and its subsidiary Harvest Farm, in 1999.
One of Harvest's most important crops is blueberries. Others include oranges, other citrus, peaches, plums and row crops such as peppers and beans. Farming of these labor-intensive niche crops provides workers with stable, year-round employment.
And that fits in with the Nogajs' mission: to create innovative solutions to the social and economic challenges faced by seasonal farm-worker families, and to help them bring about changes and improvements.
Harvest Farm is committed to paying a living wage-$8.50 to $14 per hour-to its workers while providing technical farm-related training, language and business classes. Harvest Farms will be sold or transferred to employees after an initial period of three to five years of employment using concepts of the employee stock option plan. For example, Harvest Café currently is a not-for-profit, but after five years, it will be gifted to them and converted to a for-profit operation. The café and a store in the same building, near the farm, employ 10.
The opportunities for employees to own and operate a business allow them to be self-sufficient and to take charge of their economic destiny. The Nogajs hope to share the Harvest model of farm ownership throughout rural America. "The living-wage concept will have far-reaching effects and positive impact for not only workers and their families, but the agricultural industry, farming communities and the entire nation," Richard Nogaj says. He and his wife are working to get support for a new federal tax-credit program that would allow growers to raise the pay for farm workers to an average of $8.50 to $9 per hour. Currently they're paid minimum wage, which is $5.50 an hour. "Fair food is what it is all about," he says. "Surveys have found that 80 percent of consumers would be willing to pay five percent more for a product if it was labeled 'Fair Food America.'"
Harvest for Humanity,
Nuts about Nuts
George Anderson cracked, in a manner of speaking, during a visit to Hawaii. "According to my wife, that was the beginning of the end," he says. After his trip to the Aloha state, Anderson started Anderson's Macadamia Arboretum Grove and Nursery in LaBelle. "I started wondering why we couldn't grow macadamia nuts to their extent here in Southwest Florida. The climate is so similar," he says. Anderson began the operation in 1997, and because it takes seven years to establish a grove, he's just getting ready to begin selling the nuts. "Once established, you can harvest approximately 300 pounds per tree, per year," Anderson says. "It's a good cash crop. There is a growing demand for the nuts and lots of future potential. Wholesale prices run about $8.50 a pound."
The farm is relatively inexpensive to operate. Two workers can manage a 10-acre grove, and part-time, temporary workers help during fall harvest. Blights that affect citrus farmers do not affect macadamia growers, thus reducing costs.
Another positive factor: The nuts can be easily stored up to one year. After harvesting, nuts are de-husked, usually with an improvised corn-sheller, washed, placed on wire trays for about six weeks to dry, graded and shipped to market.Shelled kernels deteriorate quickly unless kept in vacuum-sealed jars, but processed nuts, when roasted and slightly salted, keep extremely well.
"If you have a 10-acre farm," Anderson says, "you can expect to pay for your trees by the third year." The average cost of a tree is $30, he adds, and 10 acres will fit 2,000 trees. Typically, a financial return will out-perform that of a Florida citrus grower by a factor of 20. Anderson says he's the only macadamia producer in the state.
One more benefit: The trees produce for more than 100 years. "There are some trees that get to be as old as 500 years," Anderson adds, "but I don't plan to be around to see what happens with those."
Anderson's Macadamia Arboretum Grove and Nursery, (727) 643-1424
Echo: A First Helping
Hot humid lowlands, tropical highlands, tropical monsoon territory, semi-arid tropics, tropical rainforest and urban landscape can all be viewed within the confines of a 21-acre training farm and experimental laboratory in North Fort Myers. ECHO, the Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization, began in the 1970s as an effort to help farmers in Haiti. This Christian organization serves as a laboratory in low-tech farming techniques for the Third World.
"We are about providing techniques and tools," says Mike Sullivan, ECHO's development director. "One of my favorite examples of how we have made an impact results from the shipping of 10 seeds. We sent 10 Moringa tree seeds to Kenya. Within nine months, those trees had grown to be 12 feet tall. They were harvested and shared and within two years, these 10 seeds yielded 250,000 trees."
The Moringa tree is a versatile plant; in addition to serving as a food source, it can be used to purify water and enhance milk production in women with newborns.
ECHO works with a global network of missionaries and development workers, providing seeds, information, training and ideas that help fight against world hunger in over 180 countries, according to the ECHO Web site.
A stroll through the ECHO farm is truly a walk through a world of practical solutions to international hunger. ECHO offers free public tours on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday starting at 10 a.m. After the one-hour guided tour, visitors are invited to browse through the edible-landscape nursery and bookshop. Visit their Web site at www.echo-net.org, or call 543-3246.