Shrinking agriculture industry fights to survive in South Florida
The bright crimson tomatoes wilted in the South Florida heat, then rotted right on the vine.
It had been weeks since anyone ordered tomatoes from Sal Finocchiaro’s farm in Homestead, forcing him to hire workers to pick thousands of them, throw them in the soil and run over them with a tractor.
“The market was flooded with produce, and they had nowhere to put more boxes,” Finocchiaro said. “No one was buying them. They got all ripe, so we had to run them over. If not, it attracts flies and gnats and the people would have to walk through rotten tomatoes. By running them over, they disintegrate into the soil quickly. It’s just a sad, sad situation because we can’t compete.”
That day, Finocchiaro said, he lost about $25,000 — and it was not his first time.
Finocchiaro’s decision to crush his tomatoes into the dirt is indicative of the fruit and vegetables segment of South Florida’s agriculture industry, which has steadily declined since the ’90s, leaving local farmers with tough choices about what to do with their crops.
So why are South Florida’s crop-growing regions disappearing? Experts largely blame a combination of the lingering effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the ongoing project to restore the Everglades, and to a lesser extent, the impact of development.
“The industry will continue declining. The forces are inevitable; there are overwhelming forces in place,” said Alan Hodges, an extension scientist at the Food and Resource Economics Department at the University of Florida.
What you’re seeing is a decrease in cropland and groves yet an increase in nurseries and greenhouses.
Charles LaPradd, Miami-Dade County’s agriculture manager
“As long as we keep competing against lower costs of production and the constant growing population, as well as the need for new urban development, and still battle other resource constraints like the availability of fresh water, it will no doubt keep declining,” Hodges said.
Charles LaPradd, Miami-Dade County’s agriculture manager agrees. He says the signing of the North American Trade Agreement [NAFTA] has played a big role in the industry’s decline. Pests and plant diseases, as well as natural disasters like Hurricane Andrew and other severe storms, have also played a role, he said.
The area, he said, used to have more than 20,000 acres of tomato crops. Now it has fewer than 4,000.
“We’ve seen tomato-growing go from being No. 1 in our vegetable segment to a minor player,” he said, adding that the production cost of growing tomatoes is one of the highest of all field crops in South Florida — about $15,000 per acre.
Tomatoes are Miami-Dade County’s most diminished affected crop, followed by peppers, officials say.
NAFTA, a trade pact between the United States, Canada, and Mexico, was signed in 1993 by former President Bill Clinton. The agreement eliminated virtually all tariffs and trade restrictions between the three nations. The pact took effect in 1994. And since then, Florida has significantly declined in its crop sales. In 2012, Miami-Dade’s agriculture industry saw $604 million in sales compared to $661 million in 2007, according to the most recent Census data.
Although the trade agreement has benefited farming in many states, that’s not the case in Florida, according to farmers and experts in Florida’s agricultural industry. The lower prices of produce from Mexico in particular are the reason for the decline, forcing farmers to quit farming or change to other crops like yellow squash, zucchini, green beans, sweet corn, okra and boniato (tropical sweet potato).
“When one crop suffers, they all suffer. All is based on the market they go into,” LaPradd said. “For example: At one point, you had a lot of acres of tomatoes, but now, you have a lot of acres of green beans because that tomato farmer stopped growing tomatoes. It softens that green bean market because of the amount of supply. It’s kind of a ripple effect.”
In the past two decades, Miami-Dade County has lost about 45 percent of its cropland and about 18 percent of its fruit and nut groves due to foreign competition, some development, and pests and diseases, according to the county’s Department of Regulatory and Economic Resources. In 2016, at least four farms closed after an oriental fruit fly infestation and major flooding.
In the past decade, though, the amount of agricultural land has stayed more or less the same. What has changed is what that acreage is used for — poultry, horse stables, wheat, for example — and most notably, nurseries.
In 2017, Miami-Dade County had a total of about 63,175 acres of total farmland. In 2012, it was 63,475, and in 2007 it was 68,691 acres. In 1994, the county boasted 88,765 acres.
“What you’re seeing is a decrease in cropland and groves yet an increase in nurseries and greenhouses,” LaPradd said. “Over the last decade, we’ve stayed pretty much the same, however you’ll see that we lost a lot of acreage in the ’90s after Hurricane Andrew.”
“You absolutely cannot compete or go against a country that pays its workers less than ten dollars a day instead of ten an hour,” Finocchiaro said. “Right now, everything is changing. It keeps evolving and changing and shifting, and if you don’t change with it, eventually I think it can disappear.”
Most of the farms in Miami-Dade County are family-owned, even the larger operations like Costa Farms, DiMare Fresh and Brooks Tropicals. There are currently around 20,000 industry employees. That number has not fluctuated over the past few decades. The average pay is about $10 an hour, LaPradd said.
In Palm Beach County, one of the country’s largest sugar-cane growing regions, acreage devoted to that crop has declined 7 percent since 1990 while tomatoes, peppers and other row crops have diminished by almost half. Palm Beach doesn’t grow many tomatoes, but peppers have been hit the hardest. Fruit and nut groves are almost all gone, with acreage plummeting from 19,482 acres in 1990 to 991 acres last year — a loss of about 95 percent.
“Overall, the agriculture industry in Florida has been in transition for several reasons,” said Arthur Kirstein IV, coordinator of agricultural economic development at the Palm Beach County Extension Service. “Because Mexico imports the same produce that we grow, it makes the business hard on local farmers because merchants will of course go the cheaper route in purchasing their products instead of ours.”
“Apart from the economic pressure due to imports, you have citrus and citrus greening,” Kirstein added. “The decrease has been dramatic and constant over the last ten years — that along with [the] Everglades restoration project.”
And although some acreage has been lost to development, experts in both Miami-Dade and Palm Beach say it isn’t a whole lot.
“Our biggest battle right now is foreign competition, not development,” LaPradd said.
Kirstein echoed LaPradd, adding that only a small portion of the agricultural land in Palm Beach is getting development pressure. “Primarily only the land that was affected by citrus greening is being developed,” he said, noting it’s been about 5,000 acres in the past decade. “The thing is, we cannot put houses on the western part of the county, because 95 percent of it is muck, which is not compatible to develop on.”
Monroe and Broward Counties don’t have major crop industries. Monroe County specializes in fish farming, while Broward has a few ranches, nurseries and community gardens.
“We’re pretty much all built out,” said Michael Orfanedes, a commercial horticulture agent with the University of Florida’s Institute for Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension in Broward County.
Orfanedes added that there are about 350 nurseries that range from being the size of a small backyard or up to four to five acres.
“It’s not very large, but it is valuable and productive. We also have some horse ranches and significant park and recreation land holdings,” he said.
“It’s not what it used to be. In the ’80s and ’90s, just west of University Drive, was ranch land and citrus groves. Today, most of it are homeowner’s associations, condominiums, strip malls and medical facilities. ”
Florida, which once accounted for almost half of U.S. citrus production, has been fighting pests and diseases for almost two decades.
Citrus greening is one of them — an incurable bacterial disease that the state has battled since the 2000s. The epidemic caused citrus production to plummet in the state about 70 percent since the 1990s, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
This season, the state’s orange crop dropped about 14 percent due to the effects of citrus greening, which has led to loss of production (dying trees). Last year, it dropped 16 percent for the same reason.
Since 2007, Miami-Dade lost its last remaining 1,500 acres of citrus, according to Census data, after the state and federal government implemented a citrus canker eradication program, which called for the removal of trees that were either infected or within 1900 feet of an infected tree. Citrus canker is a highly contagious bacterial disease of citrus that causes premature leaf and fruit drop.
From 2002 to 2007 — the Census’ most recent data — Palm Beach lost about 35 percent of its 13,000 acres for the same reasons.
Avocados are not faring much better, due to the ambrosia beetle, which first came from Asia to the U.S. in 2002, apparently hidden inside packing material. The beetle spreads a fungal disease called laurel wilt. Now, millions of the tiny beetles have infested 8,000 acres of Miami-Dade’s avocado groves and are responsible for killing more than 13,000 commercial avocado trees in South Florida since 2012. The avocado, Miami-Dade County’s leading tree crop measured by acres grown, brings in more than $50 million a year in revenue.
Many farmers whose avocado groves were destroyed have replaced them with mamey, longans, dragon fruit and papaya, according to the the county’s extension office.
A $1.9 billion project — paid for by the state and federal governments, intended to restore the flow of water into the Everglades to keep marshes healthy and help fend off saltwater intrusion — has also affected South Florida’s agriculture industry. With the hope of restoring the region, federal officials over the years have purchased farmland.
“There has been a significant amount of acreage that over the past few years has gone out of agriculture and into native lands for Everglades restoration,” LaPradd said.
But some environmentalists have argued that the farming industry has adversely affected the Everglades.
Hodges, who works for the University of Florida’s agricultural department, does not disagree.
“It is true that agriculture is a source of pollution, you can’t deny that. Surface water that runs off of farms contains some of the nutrients from fertilizers that are applied —and it’s not something that’s recent, it’s been going on for decades,” Hodges said. “A lot of those excess nutrients, like phosphorus, are now embedded in the soils and at the bottom sediments of Lake Okeechobee. We’re at a point that no matter how much we clean up the water coming out of farms, what’s already been done will continue causing massive algae blooms like the ones we’ve been seeing.”
In Palm Beach County, about 120,000 acres, mainly sugar fields along with some citrus groves and fields for row crops, have been acquired by the government, several times by eminent domain, according to the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences in Palm Beach.
In the past 15 years in Miami-Dade, about 12,000 acres have been acquired for the project as well as for the expansion of Everglades National Park, according to the Miami-Dade County extension service. Most of the acres held row crops and a few tree farms.
Almost half — 5,200 acres, mostly in tomatoes and beans — was land owned by James Humble, a former South Miami-Dade farmer, in addition to several other shareholders, along Ingram Highway and the L31 canal. After a decade of legal battles, the federal government ultimately acquired the land through eminent domain for $55 million.
While South Florida’s fruit and vegetable industry is struggling, its agricultural industry as a whole — including grains, plants, cotton, poultry, cattle, hogs, horses and other livestock — is strong, according to data from the U.S. Census of Agriculture.
However, Census records show 2012 sales in Miami-Dade had dropped 9 percent since 2007. The average farmer lost about $62,000 in crop sales in 2012 compared to 2007. In Palm Beach, the average farm lost about 4 percent of its income in 2012 compared to 2007.
Sam Accursio, owner of Sam S Accursio & Sons Farms Homestead, said he has felt the economic burn, so much so that he is questioning whether the family business, which started in the 1940s, will be viable in the next decades. The farm specializes in cucumber, snap beans, yellow straightneck squash, zucchini, okra and sweet corn.
“My children went to college and are now back on the farm, but there’s no concrete future like there was for me,” Accursio said. “We have been stagnant for the last 10 years. Zero growth.”
Accursio says that with booming populations in South Florida, “we should be growing more food, not less.
“It’s not really me who has the problem, it’s the young people. What are you going to eat? Do you really want to rely on Third World countries to feed you? It’s very scary. You are seeing farmers either fold their business and throw in the towel or downsize and change things up. Right now, farmers are on their knees praying that the new administration tweaks the [NAFTA] agreement.”
But not all agricultural business are hurting. Data shows the acreage used for plant nurseries has doubled since the 1990s from 8,916 acres to 16,136 acres.
“Here in South Florida, most of your communities require landscaping when you do any development. That does drive that market to some degree obviously, but the indoor plant market is mainly driven by people’s growing desire for beautification,” LaPradd said.
Plant nurseries have virtually no foreign competition, mainly because foreign countries aren’t permitted to import soil into the U.S.
LaPradd says that to stay in the game, farmers must be willing to make adjustments according to the unpredictable and shifting market.
“It’s all a business, so you have to be versatile,” LaPradd said. “You have to be open to change if you are going to remain viable.”