Homestead - South Dade

Years after Hurricane Andrew, lime groves return to South Miami-Dade

Lime farmer: Mark Philcox, holds some limes from his 10-acre grove. He plans to plant another 25 acres next year.
Lime farmer: Mark Philcox, holds some limes from his 10-acre grove. He plans to plant another 25 acres next year. Miami Herald staff

Robert Fishman breaks off a leaf from a lime tree, crushes it in his hand and hands it to a reporter to take in the scent.

The tree is part of a 10-acre lime grove tucked away in Redland in South Miami-Dade, the first commercial lime-growing operation to sprout in the county in the past few years.

South Dade had been home to thousands of acres of lime groves, supplying as much as half of the limes consumed in the United States. In 1992, however, Hurricane Andrew wiped out about half of the commercial groves tucked away in South Miami-Dade’s agricultural community. The storm hit South Dade hardest.

A few years after the storm, the Florida Department of Agriculture led a campaign to stop the spread of citrus canker, a disease that disfigures citrus trees. The department mandated that infected citrus trees and trees exposed to the disease be destroyed, including lime trees.

Now, an investor and an agricultural management company have planted the first seeds to revive the once thriving South Dade lime industry that, according to the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, generated about $25 million annually in revenues just before Hurricane Andrew hit.

“Given how important this industry was for the community, we recognized that this is an opportunity to participate in the renaissance of the lime industry for the Redland community,” said Robert Fishman, who works for ThinkLABVentures, a holding company for Leonard Abess Jr. and his family’s investments.

Abess is the chairman and CEO of ThinkLABVentures and a member of the University of Miami’s board of trustees. In 2008, he sold a majority interest in his City National Bancshares to the Spanish bank Caja Madrid for $927 million. Since then, he and his family have been buying up farmland in South Miami-Dade, focusing, in part, on avocados, mangoes and limes.

Lime groves were a key spoke in South Dade’s agricultural wheel prior to Hurricane Andrew. Limes could be harvested year-round, meaning farm workers could be employed throughout the year and growers had a year-round cash flow.

But Andrew, a Category 5 hurricane that lashed South Miami-Dade on Aug. 24, 1992, severely impacted the region’s lime industry. The season immediately after Andrew, the Miami-Dade County commercial lime industry packed 228,453 bushels of limes, much less than the nearly 1.7 million bushels packed the season before the hurricane struck, said Alan Flinn, director of the Avocado Administrative Committee.

When citrus canker spread to Miami-Dade County in 1995, county and state agricultural officials wanted to eradicate the disease before it reached the orange and grapefruit commercial groves, a major economic engine for Florida.

“We were the sacrificial lime at the time,” said Mark Philcox, owner of Grove Services of Miami, contracted to manage the Redland lime-growing initiative.

Turns out, citrus canker isn’t as devastating as initially thought.

“The pulp of the lime is fine,” said Jonathan Crane, tropical fruit crop specialist at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Tropical Research & Education Center. “It might have a scab on the surface of the peel. Sometimes people don’t want to buy something that has a blemish.”

At the 10-acre Redland commercial operation, the 4,000 trees that have been planted are so far free from canker as well as from citrus greening, a more damaging disease that has been affecting the orange groves in Central Florida.

But keeping the diseases at bay is a tricky balance: Too much spraying could kill an insect that is helpful for the grove because it kills the psyllid, the insect that spreads the greening.

“You are killing the good bug with the bad bug,” said Philcox, 62.

It took $60,000 to get the operation off the ground in 2012 and another $20,000 annually to maintain the grove, which includes pest management and nutritional supplements, said Fishman, 29.

“There’s no money to be made in this grove for a couple of years. The trees are too young,” said Philcox. “The rewards are there. They are just not here.”

Indeed, it could take up to seven years for a lime tree to become fully mature, said Charles LaPradd, Miami-Dade County’s agriculture manager.

Since the harvest is low —about 710 pounds total so far — the lime-growing initiative can’t reach a full-scale commercial operation.

“It’s quasi-commercial right now,’’ Philcox said. “You have to have consistent supply.’’

Even with a consistent supply, other challenges await.

“Mexico owns the marketplace right now and how are we going to fit in to see if we can operate on those prices,” said LaPradd, the county agriculture official. “Mexico has a tremendous amount of limes growing right now. When you compete with them, you compete with someone who has much more relaxed regulations and very low operational expenses – unlike here.”

Philcox and Fishman said they are confident the lime initiative will grow.

Other farmers are eyeing the success of the lime grove, and some have already planted their own lime trees, Fishman said. If commercial lime growing comes back to South Miami-Dade, it would help farmers diversify their crops and sell their products for higher prices.

After citrus canker destroyed their lime trees, farmers planted other crops on the newly available acreage. Some turned to avocados and others to row crops, over-supplying the market with these products.

“The more supply you have, the lower the price, so growers would end up with less money,” said LaPradd.

Fishman said in the coming months the existing 10 acres would yield a larger harvest and a higher return of investment. Another 30 acres of lime trees are to be planted in the future in addition to the existing commercial lime grove, he said.

“Maybe one day,” Philcox added, “there will be a crew picking limes in each field here.”

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