MOVE OVER, CITRUS
As the market grows more competitive, farmers find new cash crops to
diversify their offerings and increase their chances for survival.
PIERSON — Gene Evans’ farm sprawls across 1,700 acres, but his family’s
agricultural future fits in just a fraction of that space.
Borrowing technology used at Epcot’s Living Seas aquariums, the pioneering
Florida aquaculture farmer plans for a future where a mere 250 acres
breeds a species of fish new to most American palates, while also
signaling the changing times in the state’s agricultural picture.
A macadamia farmer in South Florida has the same vision for his prized
trees, which fit 100 to an acre, as state officials tout corn-for-ethanol
as a viable cash crop.
Florida’s top crop? Citrus? Try ferns. Greenhouse and nursery plants top
the agricultural charts these days.
Never before have Florida’s growers and ranchers needed innovation,
creativity and smart business sense to thrive under increasing pressures
from development and mounting competition from imports, say agriculture
experts and diehard farmers who would rather change what they grow or how
they raise it than leave a way of life they love.
U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, who represents Polk County, one of the state’s top
five agricultural counties, introduced federal legislation in March that
would provide more government support for specialty crops, and help with
pest and disease control, nutrition, conservation, trade and research.
Specialty crops often do not qualify for federal subsidies even though
they account for one-third of all U.S. farm receipts, he said.
And the future likely will see more evolution, experts say.
Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson trumpets a Florida where farmers
will grow not only food crops but “fuel” crops as a second source of
income, such as corn to make ethanol.
State officials do not have statistics on how many farmers might already
be doing it, but nationwide, the trend is catching on.
In the mid-1990s for instance, 500,000 bushels of corn were used in the
United States to make ethanol, a biofuel. In 2006, 2 billion bushels were
expected to be used, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Stay or sell?
Blueberry grower Jerry Mixon, 45, of Haines City kept his hand in
electrical contracting, cattle and citrus when the family farm diversified
into blueberry production in the 1990s.
The Mixons have begun marketing blueberries around the world and a few
years ago launched a blackberry farm in Georgia. He never envisioned
himself a marketing guru, but diversifying gave him a broader base of
operations to lean on — and to sell his berries.
Crops other farmers are planting in greater numbers than in years past
include avocados, squash, honeydews, broccoli and carrots.
Research from 2005 shows farmers who diversify their land earn 21/2 times
the income per farm of those who don’t.
The whole point? A farmer’s land needs to be more valuable to keep than to
sell. The most valuable asset most farmers have is their land, the value
of which increased about 6 percent nationwide last year — almost all of
that attributed to more demand for nonagricultural uses, which in Florida
has typically meant for housing or commercial development.
Whether or not to sell a farm often comes down to simple finances, and for
many farmers, it has made more sense to sell.
“A farmer’s got to be like anyone else,” Bronson said. “Feed his family.”
But don’t write Florida farming’s obituary just yet, he adds.
A fish story
The agriculture community in Florida knows Gene Evans well. Many,
including Bronson, are watching him closely.
The large concrete tanks on his Volusia County property contain one of the
few commercial sturgeon-farming operations in the Western Hemisphere.
Russian sturgeon — about the size of a porpoise — are native to the
Caspian Sea, where it normally takes 20 to 30 years for the fish to
produce top-shelf caviar and “white as snow” meat, said Evans, 67.
He thinks he can reduce that to seven years in Florida’s warm waters and
has launched a complex operation aimed at raising the fish from
hatchlings. If he is successful, he will have a near-monopoly on the
production of top-quality caviar in the United States, which he says could
be highly profitable.
“People are taking a wait-and-see attitude to see how this works,” he said
of others who wonder whether a small piece of land can support such an
enterprise. The rest of his land has cattle, timber and corn.
He is in the process of building a “zero waste” water-recycling facility
with large sand filters based on a system used at Living Seas, where his
daughter works as a marine biologist. Some of the overflow can be pumped
to irrigate a cornfield from an underground irrigation system. The corn is
used to feed his cattle.
“In 10 years, this will support this farm,” he said of the prized
Near Fort Myers, George Anderson, 70, is looking to macadamia nuts — once
thought to be ungrowable in Florida — for the same result. He thinks they
could be the trees that save many citrus farmers. Anderson’s nursery has a
hard time keeping up with orders these days, and the trees have the
potential to become a financial boon, he said.
They aren’t prone to canker or greening, are cold-hardy and produce 300
pounds of nuts per tree at maturity, he said. Selling for $5 per pound and
squeezing 100 trees per acre, the nuts, he thinks, are a financial
“We can slow the urban growth and slow the developers because the $150,000
[macadamia’s potential annual yield] per acre makes the land more valuable
to keep than to sell,” said Anderson, a financial planner who retired to
nut growing as a “hobby.” He now has 28 varieties and orders trees from 18
Unlike Mixon, Mike Drawdy of Imperial Tropicals in Polk City doesn’t
really want to grow blueberries. Or strawberries.
Or anything else besides angelfish and black mollies and swordtails or any
of the other 60 varieties of tropical fish he raises. Foreign competition,
though, could force him to.
“We like what we do, and we are good at what we do,” he said of the family
business, part of a $3.1 million export concern. “But anytime you are
dealing with agriculture, all it takes is a hurricane, disease or
something to wipe you out. And so the more you can diversify, the safer it
Other, more-experienced farmers have encouraged Drawdy, 29, to go into
blueberries or strawberries, a $1.5 billion industry in Florida.
“We’ve kicked it around about doing blueberries,” he said. “We’re going to
do our best to be as diverse as we can. . . . One way or another, we’re
going to make it.”
Illustration: PHOTO: George Anderson harvests macadamia nuts, saying the
trees aren’t prone to canker or greening, are cold-hardy and produce 300
pounds of nuts each at maturity.
JULIE FLETCHER/ORLANDO SENTINEL
PHOTO: Gene Evans is one of the only commercial sturgeon farmers on this
side of the world. If it works, he will have a near-monopoly on
top-quality caviar in the U.S.
DENNIS WALL/ORLANDO SENTINEL
PHOTO: (A faceless farmer standing on his farmland holding two pitchforks
with different crops and livestock on each prong.)
ILLUSTRATION BY TODD STEWART/ORLANDO SENTINEL
BOX: WHAT’S UP:
2000-01 to 2004-05 percentage change in acreage devoted
FOLIAGE PLANTS +21%
OTHER EMERGING CROPS
– CORN FOR ETHANOL
BOX: WHAT’S DOWN:
2000-01 to 2004-05 percentage change in acreage devoted (crops) or total
MILK COWS -13%
BEEF COWS -4%
SOURCE: Florida Agricultural Statistical Directory 2006
Guidance from an elder brother
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