April 8, 2016

West Meets East: Ag Leadership Groups Network During Florida Production Tour

Rain, rain and more rain.  That was the overarching theme of a recent Florida production tour attended by members of the Western Growers (WG) and Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association (FFVA) leadership classes.

Following an unusually warm end to last year, record rains and extreme winds in January and February have dramatically impacted many produce growers in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) south of Lake Okeechobee.  Many fruit and vegetable crops—ranging from bell peppers to tomatoes to many varieties of leafy greens—have either suffered from delayed maturity or diminished quality, often both.

Despite the challenges presented by Mother Nature, the combined group had the opportunity to visit many agricultural operations throughout South Florida over the course of three days in early March.  During each stop, participants learned about the production practices and key issues facing growers of fresh produce and some famous Florida crops, such as sugar cane and oranges for processing.

The primary takeaway of the trip: Florida farmers are remaining resilient in the face of difficult weather and other pressures, including diseases that are threatening the citrus industry.

Six members of the Western Growers’ Future Volunteer Leader Program were in attendance: Pete Aiello, Uesugi Farms, Gilroy, CA; Neill Callis, Turlock Fruit Company, Turlock, CA; Brandon Grimm, Grimmway Farms, Bakersfield, CA; Trey Rodriguez, The Growers Company, Somerton, AZ; Bridget Rotticci, Bengard Ranch, Salinas, CA; and Kyle Smith, JV Smith Companies, Yuma, AZ.

The tour began on Wednesday, March 3, in the Belle Glade area with a sugar cane burn conducted by U.S. Sugar.  Florida is the second largest domestic producer of sugar, behind only Louisiana.  All total, 20 percent of U.S. consumption of sugar comes from Florida, of which half is produced by U.S. Sugar.

In explaining the purpose of the practice, Trey Rodriguez stated, “There is nothing sweeter than a sugar cane burn, disposing of up to six inches of dead leaves and 30 percent of the total weight to allow for a cleaner harvest.”

The sugar theme continued as the group visited the Sugar Cane Growers Co-op, a facility jointly owned by 46 growers.  By aggregating the collective acreage of its members (approximately 70,000), the co-op allows for economies of scale in the growing, harvesting, transporting, processing and marketing of the company’s sugar.

Next, one member of the WG leadership class found herself in familiar territory as the tour continued on to TKM Bengard, the largest lettuce growers east of the Mississippi River.  The farm is a partnership between her family (Bengard) and the Basore family.  “It is fascinating to see the adaptations this company has implemented to successfully produce lettuce in Florida,” said Bengard’s Bridget Rotticci.  “Their operations are impressive and serve a niche market on the East Coast.”

The group did not have to travel far to visit Veg-Pro’s processing facility, which shares space with TKM Bengard.  The largest grower of vegetables in Canada, Veg-Pro farms 1,000 acres of leafy greens in Florida, including spinach, arugula and kale.  Of this acreage, only 25 percent comes to the Belle Glade plant as the rest goes to Canada or is sold to other buyers.

Day one concluded with a stop at R.C. Hatton, a grower and packer of sweet corn and green beans.  This company was hit hard by the rainstorms earlier in the year and it was still waiting to get back up to full production.

Even though the packing lines were fairly quiet, Brandon Grimm noted that, “It was impressive to see the mix of older and newer technologies used to achieve maximum productivity in R.C. Hatton’s packing and shipping operations.”

Thursday, March 4, began at Lipman Farms, a vertically-integrated grower of fresh market tomatoes that controls their plants from seed to harvest.  As their operations rely solely on hand labor, it is easy to understand why this company places particular emphasis on routine training and fair treatment of their 1,300 employees.

Pete Aiello observed: “It was apparent that the Lipman Farms team takes tremendous pride in their work.  The practices they employ are of the highest attention to detail, efficiency and responsibility.”

Day two of the tour continued to Southern Gardens Citrus, a bulk supplier of orange juice to brands such as Tropicana and Florida’s Natural, where it is used as an ingredient.  Additionally, they also provide finished product for private labels like Krogers.

The mantra of the processing plant is zero waste, in which “every byproduct of the fruit—the juice, pulp and solid waste—has an end use,” marveled Neill Callis. “Even the wastewater is treated on-site.”

Southern Gardens’ focus on efficiency is particularly critical at a time when Florida’s citrus production has declined from 350 million boxes per year at its peak a decade ago to an estimated 67 million boxes this year.  The primary culprit? Citrus greening.

Citrus greening was a topic of conversation at the next stop on the tour, as well. A. Duda & Sons, the parent company of Western Growers’ member, Duda Farm Fresh Foods, hosted the group on its ranch in Labelle.

On the heels of citrus canker, which affected their groves in the mid-2000s, A. Duda & Sons is now aggressively moving to manage the citrus greening disease.  In the newer groves, they are using high-density planting and removing the young trees as they are infected.  In the older groves, they are attempting to extend the life of mature trees through a combination of nutrient management and vector control.

“A. Duda & Sons is demonstrating the resiliency of the Florida citrus industry and proving that they will continue to thrive in spite of diseases like canker and greening,” commented Kyle Smith.

The second day ended and the third day began in the midst of bell peppers, much to the delight of California bell pepper grower Pete Aiello.  Thursday concluded with a visit to the L & M Farms packing facility where they pack two million boxes of bell peppers each year, and Friday began in a bell pepper field with J & J Family of Farms.

The final farm stop on the tour was with Grower’s Management Inc., where Highland Precision Ag demonstrated its latest drone technology.  According to Trey Rodriguez, “Drones aren’t just for Obama anymore.  Highland Precision Ag can spot disease and calculate size and yield of 600 acres, all within 24 hours.”

The tour concluded with an industry roundtable featuring Mike Stuart, president and CEO of FFVA, Ken Barbic, senior director of government affairs for WG, and Matt Joyner, director of federal affairs for Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

Held at the Everglades Research & Education Center, Stuart moderated a panel that discussed common issues facing WG and FFVA members, including immigration reform, pests and diseases, and environmental pressures.

Beyond the significant educational experiences enjoyed by the tour participants, something even bigger—and perhaps more important—was achieved.  The foundation of lasting relationships between the emerging leaders of these two influential agricultural organizations was established.

As the general public grows more distant from the source of its food supply, opportunities for the introduction of misinformed and misguided public policies are increasing almost exponentially.

One thing is clear: The future will look very different than the past, which will necessitate a new approach to advocacy.  This new paradigm will require the direct, sustained and collective engagement of the entire industry, regardless of geography or commodity.

Echoing this sentiment, FFVA Director of Membership Sonia Tigue concluded, “The challenges facing agriculture are making state and regional lines increasingly obsolete.  This will require that the next generation of leaders work more collaboratively to respond to common threats like negative consumer perceptions and disruptive legislative and regulatory proposals.”