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Robert McMahon Jr. is a fourth-generation farmer. He wonders, though, what the future will bring for his livelihood in the next generation—especially in Southwest Florida, where agricultural land keeps shrinking.

The 444 acres on which McMahon’s father once farmed, just northwest of the Interstate 75 and Daniels Parkway interchange in south Fort Myers, used to be a red potato farm. Since 2007, it has been the Paseo community, where there are more than 1,000 homes.

“I’ve been around here for a few years,” says McMahon, who was born and raised in Fort Myers. His father moved there from his native Nebraska in 1947, when the interstate and the sprawl of concrete and steel between Fort Myers and Naples didn’t exist. “I’ve seen a few changes, from this being an agricultural area here to not so much.”

McMahon and his family still operate Southern Fresh Farms on 5 acres. They grow lettuce and tomatoes, onions and peppers, some squash and, for the Crazy Dingo Brewery that leases some of their space, a crucial beer ingredient: hops. “We’ve got some blackberries,” he says. “We’ve got some farm animals. We’ve got some cows and goats. People can come and pet them and see what a farm animal looks like. We’ve got a pond with some turtles and fish.”

That the McMahons have gone from farming more than 400 acres to just 5 acres provides anecdotal evidence of where farming is going in Southwest Florida. The data helps tell the story, too.

In Lee County, agricultural acreage has fallen by about 2% annually every year over the past 10 years. It has dropped from 269,197 acres to 238,359 acres, according to data provided by the Lee County property appraiser’s office. The 30,838 vanished acres equal about 46 square miles. In Collier County, where a large chunk of the nation’s tomato supply is grown in and near Immokalee, agricultural acreage has fallen from 205,700 acres in 2011 to 193,126 acres in 2021, a loss of 12,574 acres. In Charlotte County, there’s a similar trend: 131,920 acres in 2011 dropped to 124,020 acres in 2021, a loss of 7,900 acres. That’s a three-county combined loss of 51,312 agricultural acres over 10 years, which is almost 80 square miles. That combined land area is larger than the 49-square-mile city of Fort Myers.

The situation is a bit more complex than blaming the vanishing farmland on the politics of rezoning agricultural land to housing or commercial land, or even just pointing to population growth, said Fritz Roka, an FGCU professor of agricultural economics.

“The greening has been devastating,” Roka says of the virus that has been infecting citrus trees across Florida. “A lot of citrus growers have been packing it in. The volume of fruit, the yield, has gone down. At the grocery store, the price has gone up.

“These are economic trends. More and more people want to come to Fort Myers and Naples and Bonita Springs, specifically. That gives the farmer, as a landowner, options if they can’t afford to grow. The economics of farming are a lot different than 10, 15, 20 years ago. It just keeps changing along with technology and airports and greening and trends.”

Sticking with it

Orange grower Wayne Simmons still farms the land he owns in Hendry and Collier counties. “As far as agriculture in the state of Florida, it’s kind of going the route of California,” Simmons says. “The population is increasing. Well, where is the available land? The available land is usually the ag land. Once it goes to rooftops, it will never go back to agricultural land.

“Ag land is getting bombarded from all angles,” Simmons says. “The farmer’s retirement plan is his land. It’s an exit strategy now. You don’t really want to sell, but most citrus growers aren’t really into going to another crop. I’ve got some prime land. I’m still farming it. I joke that I’m spending my retirement to stay in the citrus business.”

The greening, Simmons said, has been absolutely devastating to the citrus business. “There’s no cure for the greening,” Simmons says. “You see your production go down.”

Aphid-like insects called psyllids transmit the virus from plant to plant.

“It’s like, ‘Can you spray enough to kill every mosquito in the state of Florida?’” Simmons says. “We’d have to be spraying every orange tree every day. It’s just not feasible.”

Moving east

Glades County is one area in Southwest Florida that actually has seen agricultural land grow in terms of parcel count; in 2011, there were 2,027 agricultural parcels. In 2021, there were 2,050. That trend demonstrates how, as the Lee and Collier coastal areas continue to fill in with development, the agricultural areas have shifted inland.

“Everything has been pushed to the east for a long, long time,” says Roka, who arrived in Immokalee in 1996. He worked for 22 years at the University of Florida’s research and education center, then joined FGCU in 2018. “Small farms, it’s very hard to be successful. It’s very atypical. If you are successful, it’s because you’ve found a niche—either a niche product-wise or a niche client-wise.

“If you’re a vegetable grower, and you’ve got enough subscribers, those types of operations can do well,” Roka says. “Especially if you have the right mentality and personality with your customers. Other small farms can develop connections with high-end restaurants. They’re doing OK, but unless you’re a King Ranch or Alico or Lipman Brothers, it’s really hard to stay in the game.”

Roka said those big three farming companies can survive with their mega operations, which puts the squeeze on the smaller ones. “You’ve got to be efficient,” he says. “You’ve got to scale up. You invest in high-tech equipment. You invest in very capable people who know how to manage large acreage. It’s a low cost of production.”

Other countries have started to catch up with farming technology, Roka said. That means Americans can get cheaper produce items from Mexico, for example, which is a prime reason why Airglades International Airport in Clewiston is undergoing a $300 million expansion project: It will transform a tiny airport into a logistics hub. Instead of growing more goods across the region west of the airport, those goods increasingly will be imported there instead.

“We can grow more tomatoes on a given acre of land than a Mexican farmer could,” Roka says, “with nutrient management, more sophisticated pest control measures. But the Mexican farmer has gotten bigger and more sophisticated, as well. It’s a tougher game for a Florida grower to be in.”

The transition zone

Roka used the term “transition zone” for coastal-area land that has been converted from farms to housing.

Gladiolus Drive in south Fort Myers was named for the flowers that once flanked the road. But most of the flowers are gone; now they’re imported to florists internationally. In their place are cookie-cutter gated communities, strip malls and restaurants.

“A great example is Corkscrew Road,” Roka says, referring to the portion east of the interstate and west of the Collier County line. “It used to be open land all the way to Immokalee. Now, you’ve got these deep developments. The Shores of Corkscrew. The Place, where 1,500 houses are going into that development.”

These shifts required changing politics, as the Lee County government voted to relax housing density standards in 2015 in that area. But overall, Lee County is filling in as it has been planned since 1987, said Matt Caldwell, who has a unique perspective on agriculture in the region, having lost the statewide election for Florida’s secretary of agriculture to Nikki Fried in 2018. But he won Lee County’s election for property appraiser in 2020. He succeeded Ken Wilkinson, who won 10 elections and held the elected appraiser position for 40 years.

“There are a couple of perspectives,” Caldwell says. “The first is that almost everything that gets developed in Lee County in our lifetime was designated for development from the very beginning. The comprehensive plan was developed in 1987. All of this land that became Estero and Bonita and east Fort Myers, North Fort Myers, all of that land was designated for suburban or urban development from the very beginning of the Lee plan. If you look at the areas that were designated then to remain agricultural, Alva is still a rural community. Bayshore is still a rural community.”

Still, Caldwell recognizes that even those communities are changing as the sprawl has started to reach and affect them. Babcock Ranch off State Road 31 is filling in much of that area leading to Palm Beach Boulevard. And the area round Riverdale High School, just west of Alva, continues to grow with new housing.

“Agriculture as a business, as part of our economic profile, is much smaller than it was,” Caldwell says. “In some ways, that just means that Lee County has grown. The kind of agriculture in the areas that surround us has changed. The citrus groves are still substantial. They’re still part of our regional economic profile, undoubtedly. I would suggest agriculture is still going to be substantial, but it’s going to be different. There might not be 1,000-acre ranches or 100-acre orange groves in Lee County. But in Alva and Buckingham, there are still some substantial plant and tree operations.”

Caldwell also called the Corkscrew Road shift from agriculture to housing a “good trade.”

“They (the developers) are setting aside 65% of their land for conservation, for the benefit of the public,” Caldwell says. “The public is essentially getting free land.”

About 12 years ago, Lee County also modified its land-use plan to keep Pine Island focused on agriculture. Those who stay in farming, Caldwell said, would have to adapt and stay connected to their peers across the state.

“If you’re in agriculture, and you’ve got citrus or cattle or sugar cane or tomatoes or whatever, your reach is really statewide,” he says. “You can talk to a farmer in north Florida, and they’re going to know people in the industry in south Florida. Agriculture is such a low-margin profit industry, so you want to be globally connected. The bigger the market, the higher your return.”

The big fish

Some of the larger farming companies did not respond when asked to talk about this subject. But King Ranch did.

Mitch Hutchcraft, vice president of King Ranch, oversees agriculture real estate operations for the company, which is listed as the 10th-largest landowner in the United States with more than 1,500 employees. King Ranch owns land in seven Florida counties, including the five-county Southwest Florida region.

Hutchcraft grew up in Lee County, working on some of those flower farms along Gladiolus in south Fort Myers. “We were called ‘luggers,’” Hutchcraft says. “They would cut them, and we would group them and lug them back to the truck.”

Because Hutchcraft grew up around farming, he gravitated to it—but on the business side.

“I think you’re seeing a number of things that are happening,” he says. “As we farmers grow more on less land with less water, that leaves some of that available land for other uses. Sometimes that’s other agricultural uses, sometimes it’s conservation land, sometimes it’s other uses. Florida, in particular, is challenged by growing some of the same food products as Mexico.”

Greening has affected Florida farming, Hutchcraft said, but so has competition from other countries. That competition grew in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in 2017, when the excessive wind and rain cut down on Florida citrus production and therefore raised the reliance on imported citrus.

“The tech is better,” Hutchcraft says of U.S. farms. “But there are a lot of additional regulatory, labor, land-use costs that the U.S. is exposed to and Florida is exposed to that some of the other countries aren’t exposed to. In the grand scheme, even King Ranch is relatively small.”

Hutchcraft also wanted to clear up a misperception by pointing out that if King Ranch is putting pressure on smaller, neighboring growers, it certainly isn’t on purpose.

“Citrus, in particular, is one of those industries where we’re all in it together,” he says. “A bigger grower cannot do well without the smaller growers. We’re all pulling for the benefit of the industry. The costs to maintain our groves have gone up significantly; that’s due in part to trying to recover from the wind and the water. It’s had an impact on all of those trees.”

Demand for citrus products grown in Florida lessened after Irma because of the glut of imported citrus, Hutchcraft said. That created another set of challenges.

“There were purchases of oranges from Mexico and Brazil to make sure the processors had what they needed,” he says. “While there was a reduction of citrus here in Florida, it was more than filled by imports, so we ended up with an excess in supply.”

Looking ahead

The ongoing influx of new residents to Southwest Florida likely will continue to fill in legacy agricultural parcels and turn them into new communities or commercial parcels to support the new residents.

“Ag is pushing eastward,” says William “Billy” Rollins, a senior broker with LSI Companies who specializes in agricultural land. But not all of the agricultural land is turning to residential or commercial.

“LSI Companies, we represented an international company with a 125,000-square-foot growhouse. They were growing vegetables and seeds. They wanted to shut down the facility. Along came a medical marijuana company. So they’re changing from one agricultural company to another.

“Some of the citrus growers, they’re going to remain in the agricultural business,” Rollins says. “Greening makes it very difficult. I do know there are some very smart people working on it at the University of Florida. They’re working on some sort of a cure.

“These growers, they’re not really interested in selling their land, but in converting it to other crops. Now, there are some folks who are growing different types of hemp plants that will be able to be grown in Florida. The consumer needs change, too. Agricultural growers change with it.”

McMahon has no plans to quit farming the lands that have been in his family for more than half a century now.

“There’s three things in this world we have to have,” McMahon says. “We’ve got to have oxygen. We’ve got to have water. We have to have food. For some reason, agriculture always seems to be a target. That has always bothered me, because agriculture touches every moment of our life. From the moment we get out of our bed with our cotton sheets, and then when we get into our cotton clothes: ‘What do I want for lunch? What do I do for dinner?’ Everything you do, agriculture is involved in your life.”

As agriculture continues moving inland in Southwest Florida, McMahon said the least he could do was to buck that trend on his tiny, 5-acre farm.

“I’m not anti-people,” McMahon says. “But the bottom line is, we’ve still got to feed them. The more agriculture is pushed out, you’ve still got to think about the repercussions of it.” 

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