A Re-Growth Industry

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CROPPING UP Jonathan Way and his wife, Isabel, founded Colusa Farms in Naples in 2011.

Southwest Florida vegetable growers are poised to plant the same volume they did before COVID-19 forced the state’s farmers to plow under, set ablaze or abandon $522 million of product in the field last March.

“Everyone I spoke to is planting the same vegetables and the same amount,” says Gene McAvoy, an extension agent with the University of Florida. McAvoy, with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, drives Southwest Florida’s back roads, talking to growers on small, medium and large farms. He also follows companies that sell tomato, watermelon, green bean, yellow squash and other seedlings to farmers for spring planting.

“Only five or six producers sell transplants to farmers,” McAvoy says. “I surveyed their plant orders for 2021 and they are exactly like the pre-COVID planting.”

“I can only speak for ourselves, for our company,” says

Tony DiMare, vice president of DiMare Fresh, which plants thousands of acres of cherry, grape, Roma and round tomatoes in south and central Florida and other states. “Nobody can exactly predict what’s going to happen, so for us, it’s business as usual.”

Two developments—both of which emerged after COVID-19 shut down restaurants, public schools and other Southwest Florida food markets last year—have farmers optimistic they’ll sell what they plant this year. First, the 2020 shutdown, which erased 70% of Florida’s fresh vegetable market, was temporary. Though farmers lost out on the peak harvest in March, the market returned, DiMare said. “Once we got beyond the middle of April, things started to somewhat normalize.”

Second, the U.S. Department of Agriculture bought $1.781 billion of fresh produce from growers for its Farmers to Families Food Box program, which provided fresh vegetables and fruit for food banks during COVID-19. Even with effective COVID vaccines pending, economists predict that Americans will need at least 8 billion donated meals in 2021.

“We participated in two rounds of the USDA program,” DiMare says. “It was the shot in the arm that allowed growers an avenue to contribute their product, coordinating with food banks around the country. Our hope is the government continues this program.”

“We haven’t adjusted any of our plans due to COVID,” says Jaime Weisinger, director of Lipman Produce in Immokalee. “With the emergence of at-home meals, increased use of restaurant delivery and the availability of takeout at most food service establishments, even the general public has made the new normal work.”

Jonathan Way and his wife Isabel operate Colusa Farms in Naples, growing purple radish, red Russian kale, mushrooms, lettuce, basil, watercress and other leafy vegetables for restaurants, hotels and country clubs. With his smaller farm, Way can plant to order. “Like a lot of business owners, we don’t know what’s around the corner,” he says, “but I am talking with my chefs to determine what they absolutely need.”

 

THE GARDEN GEM

An annual harvest of 450,000 tons, the tomato is Southwest Florida’s leading crop, but it is expensive to produce: between $10,000— $12,000 an acre to grow, then as much as $6,000 to pick and pack, McAvoy said. That’s why UF researchers develop new tomato strains, including the Garden Gem, to develop new markets. The gem is celebrated for its aroma, flavor and texture and is excellent for processing—especially into tomato juice.

Alas, important tools are missing. UF Professor Harry J. Klee, who developed the Garden Gem, said it has gained a national market for home gardeners, but Florida growers aren’t interested in juice—so far.

“You need processing plants, and those, in turn, need large volumes of fruit,” Klee says. “I can imagine a small, high-end market for tomato juice, but I cannot imagine that it would be a significant contribution to Florida tomato production. I’d be thrilled if I’m wrong, but it ain’t gonna happen anytime soon. And probably never.”

 

IMMOKALEE, HEART OF THE VEGETABLE INDUSTRY IN SOUTHWEST FLORIDA

During harvest in the fall and winter:

• 100 semis a day leave Immokalee with tomatoes, squash and other vegetables; each truck carries 32,000 pounds; that’s 1,500 to 1,600 tons a day.

• South Florida provides 70% of the vegetables east of the Mississippi from late October until mid-May and feeds more than 150 million people from Miami to Chicago.

• Mexico provides the bulk of fresh vegetables west of the Mississippi.

• Destinations: Florida’s fresh vegetables are sold to distribution centers operated by Walmart, Publix, Winn-Dixie and other grocery chains. Smaller farms deliver directly to restaurants, hotels and motel kitchens, while larger farms may also have contracts with cruise ships, public school systems, universities and motel chains.

Source: Gene McAvoy, University of Florida, Southwest Research & Education Center

 

Photo Credit: Vanessa Rogers

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