South Florida

Bumper crop in South Dade is no boon for farmers

Maria Diaz, who is a worker at the Curbside Market, located at 29100 Krome Avenue in Homestead, picks strawberries late last month. The U-Pick is open 8:30am to 5:30 pm every day, and the season runs from November till May.
Maria Diaz, who is a worker at the Curbside Market, located at 29100 Krome Avenue in Homestead, picks strawberries late last month. The U-Pick is open 8:30am to 5:30 pm every day, and the season runs from November till May. Miami Herald staff

These days, farmers in deep South Miami-Dade County are hoping for clouds, cooler temperatures or even some wind.

It has been a hot winter in South Florida. Great if you’re a tourist, but not so good if you’re a farmer. The fields are overflowing with more fresh vegetables then growers say they can sell.

"Right now, we’re sitting in the worst time frame we’ve ever seen," said Miami-Dade County Agricultural Manager Charles LaPradd.

Despite the abundance, don’t go looking for bargains at the supermarket. The cost of vegetables actually went up in November — though there is about a month lag until farm-level prices impact consumers, said USDA economist Annemarie Kuhns.

Every winter, just a short drive south from the concrete towers of Miami, one of the state’s largest industries kicks into high gear: farming. Right now in southwest Miami-Dade, tractors rumble alongside Krome Avenue, irrigation trucks douse crops and migrant workers hunch over rows of leafy green plants.

At the edge of the Everglades, about 60,000 acres are dedicated to growing green beans, sweet potatoes and other vegetables as well as fruit like strawberries that draw tourists to U-pick and milkshake stands. In a county better known for nightlife and beaches, farms here sold $600-million worth of products in 2012, according to the Census of Agriculture.

But this year has gotten off to an overheated start.

"The weather has to change," said Debbie Brady, executive director of the Dade County Farm Bureau. "The coolers are filled."

Numbers from the USDA back what farmers are saying. The price growers are getting for green beans is down almost 8 percent from last month. Miami-Dade is the second-largest grower of green beans in the U.S. according to the agriculture Census.

Squash, though, has suffered the most: it’s down almost 31 percent.

Prices at the supermarket, meanwhile, have stayed about the same.

"We’re forecasting fresh vegetable prices to actually increase in 2015," said Kuhns, the USDA economist.

That’s part of the problem farmers are having, Brady said. She thinks supermarkets could sell more produce – and therefore buy more from growers – if they would bring prices down.

"The consumer would benefit if that price point changed as the seasons changed. If we have an abundance of produce in Miami-Dade, then the grocery stores should adjust," she said.

But weather has been the overarching issue. Sam Accursio, whose family grows 2,000 acres in Miami-Dade, said this winter has been 10 degrees hotter than normal. That accelerates how big and how fast crops grow. Some crops have to be picked or farmers risk damage to the plant. It obviously costs money to pick, sort and pack that produce – so it squeezes farmers when no one’s buying.

On a recent afternoon, Accursio walked into a cooler at his Homestead packing plant. It was stacked with boxes of pickling cucumbers

"We want it empty," he said.

Not everyone in South Miami-Dade aims for empty coolers. Farm Share is a non-profit that collects produce from local farms and gives it to hungry families across the state. Lately, the organization doesn’t have enough trucks to distribute all the donated food. Accursio said he recently made his first donation to the organization: 40,000 pounds of squash he couldn’t sell.

"A lot of farmers have been giving us a lot of produce. And a lot of it has to do with the market," said John Delgado, assistant operations manager at the food bank. "The only thing we need are more trucks."

It’s not all bad news for farmers, though. Tomato harvesting in Miami-Dade is set to begin with the New Year. The prices of tomatoes are up month over month and year over year, according to the USDA.

"The early tomato crops look exceptionally well and quality is going to be very, very good as well. A good season," said grower Tony DiMare. The only concern is that Homestead’s harvest usually coincides with Mexico’s.

Another bright spot: U-pick operations, said Shawn Housh owner of Curbside Market & Milkshakes on Krome Avenue just north of Homestead. He opened his business about three years ago, and has grown ever since.

The market features freshly made pies, milkshakes and four acres of fields where customers come to pick their own cabbages, strawberries and other fresh produce.

South Miami-Dade has put an emphasis on agri-tourism lately, and Housh said he is reaping the benefits.

"It definitely has been better this year than it has been last year," Housh said.