Florida Fall Produce: The Story on the Sunshine State’s Organics
By Lisa White
Some say Florida will never be able to sustain organics because of the climate; however, there has been progress in the growing habits and expansion of produce options.
According to the most recent USDA AgCensus from 2012:
- Florida ranks 6th in the U.S. for the value of organic crops produced and represents 2.7 percent of the U.S. value.
- As of 2012, Florida had 210 organic farms that combined for $83.4 million in sales.
- The Top 5 organic growing areas of the state are Hendry, Alachua, Polk, Miami-Dade and Gilchrist counties.
“Many of the growing breakthroughs are happening at the farm level first within the organic segment, as the grower’s understanding of a particular geography or soil type deepens,” says Daniel Whittles, manager of business and product development for J & J Produce Inc., Loxahatchee, FL. “[This is the alternative] to an industry-wide solution or broad stroke techniques that are not appropriate in supporting the success of every organic farm or crop.”
Those in the industry report that organic farms have made great strides in Florida in recent years.
“While the mainstream appeal of organic produce has grown, the foray into organic production by conventional farmers has expanded the selection of organic products from Florida,” says Morgan L. Edwards, information specialist II, Division of Marketing and Development at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in Tallahassee, FL. “Insect, disease and weed pressure in Florida are tough to overcome when temperatures never are low enough to have an effect on the life cycle of many pests.”
Also, organic production is more labor intensive everywhere, but can be even more problematic when there is no reprieve from pests throughout the year.
“Growers have become more resourceful using integrated pest management tools to their benefit,” says Edwards. “Soil building, utilizing cover crops for weed suppression and increasing organic matter in the soil are some of the ways Florida organic farmers are working to create more fertile soils that retain more moisture than the natural sand found on most Florida farms.”
Although growing organics in a hot, moist environment can be difficult due to fungus and bugs that are present with these conditions, it is not impossible.
“We do harvest a fair amount of organic produce from Florida, such as citrus, watermelon, squash and beans,” says Maria Brous, director of media and community relations for Lakeland, FL-based Publix. “Our goal is to purchase locally whenever possible to support our local growers and to provide the best pricing for our customers.”
Wish Farms in Plant City, FL, is one of the largest organic suppliers of strawberries, having grown these crops for the last 12 years, but the company is still learning how to best manage the many obstacles.
“With organic, yields are diminished and the product costs are higher,” says Gary Wishnatzki, Wish Farms’ president and chief executive. “The prices we get are necessary to make it sustainable, since we can’t compare with California. We’ve had our ups and downs, but customers are demanding these products, which are a good complement to our conventional berries.”
Despite the challenges, the demand for Florida-grown organic produce continues to expand. “It’s an expensive category all around, difficult to grow, and the yields aren’t great, but I see some additional acreage added each year and consumer demand is growing,” says Steve Oldock, owner of King Farms LLC, a Naples, FL-based broker/shipper. “Even though organics can cost sometimes three times as much as conventional produce, we see that category growing”
Organics is a strong growth item for Oviedo, FL-based Duda Farm Fresh Foods. The company has been adding volume each year to meet growing demand.
“Through variety development and the advancement of new cultural techniques, we are always improving on efficiencies,” says Jason Bedsole, Florida sales manager.