Florida Growers Show Ingenuity as Coronavirus Unfolds
If you were able to travel back to about this time last year and were told such outlandish things — like all schools and colleges would be shuttered; professional sports would be postponed or cancelled; unemployment numbers would rival the Great Depression; there would be toilet paper shortages; wearing face masks would become the norm; and the entire country would be told to stay home — what would think? A year ago, you would have probably chalked it up as poppycock. But here we are thanks to a novel virus.
A year ago, hearing all this is true, you might also think that society surely must be unraveling. And looking back at all that has happened between March and now, that is not an unreasonable thought. But as bad a hand as the coronavirus has dealt us, we are not unraveling. Far from it.
I have always marveled at how remarkable our society is and how quickly we can accept and adapt to changing conditions — the new normal, as they say. Despite the debate on whether we’ve overreacted or underreacted, this virus is an opportunity to draw us closer together rather than push us apart (while social distancing, of course). It has been my observation, so far, that it has pulled the country together to get through the challenges ahead.
To be sure, this in no way diminishes the deaths and devastating toll COVID-19 has claimed. Growers here in Florida have been hit especially hard as markets for their products dry up. But, as soon as the pandemic began to unfold, we began to follow the Marine Corps mantra — Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome.
Some of you sought out new ways to sell your product. Drive through pick-ups of produce boxes became a thing. Many of you became masters of social media to directly connect with consumers. You became the face of agriculture, representing Florida in local and national media to explain the realities of farming and how this virus is impacting the men and women who feed the country. And you donated millions of pounds of fruits and vegetables to those in need.
You did all these things before the government came in with financial aid. That has begun to flow and is needed badly, with more need to come. The government is playing a vital role to stabilize the country, but talk about trying to walk a tightrope, balancing society’s needs without stifling the free-enterprise nature of the country. We will need that spirit to overcome the COVID-19 challenge.
A year ago, if you told me all this, I am not sure I would have thought we had the right stuff to rise above this pandemic. Today, I do, but we can’t do it without you. Here, too, the government can play a proper role in stemming the flow, so you can sustain your operations into the future. That was true before COVID-19, but it is especially important now.
So, where do we go from here? Who knows what a year will bring? What if I told you a year from now, there would be a viable COVID-19 treatment? Where do you think this country that has been the economic engine of the globe would go?
We’d do what we always do — rise.
Frank Giles is editor of Florida Grower
On-Farm Trials for Hemp Get Growing in Florida
Florida’s fledgling hemp industry is starting to test its wings. As the UF/IFAS Industrial Hemp Pilot Project moves into its second year, along with a green light from USDA to cultivate the crop, on-farm research trials begin with commercial growers across the state. Twenty farms in 12 Florida counties have been selected for the trials. According to UF/IFAS, these farms are in different agricultural regions to provide a variety of conditions to study the growth and success of hemp across the state.
Zach Brym, UF/IFAS agronomy Assistant Professor and hemp pilot project coordinator, says grower applications were vetted thoroughly. A panel of 20 reviewers looked for farmers that could plant a hemp field, execute a coordinated field experiment, and share their farming knowledge to support the establishment of a hemp industry in Florida.
“When choosing growers, we looked carefully at each application to evaluate what each grower could bring to the project and if they could satisfy the objectives of the coordinated trial while meeting the required security measures,” Brym explained. “The selected farms will work on a coordinated research trial on two acres per farm to understand the impacts of the environment, or their soil and access to water, on how hemp grows. Growers have the option to include another three acres for an independent research trial focused on industry development.”
If growers choose to add the additional three acres, they are asked to submit a plan that states a clear research topic, achievable goals, and detailed methods for those three acres in the application, according to Brym. Examples of acceptable topics include variety trials, fertilizer trials, irrigation system design, equipment tests and others. Farmers will submit an annual report to the UF/IFAS Industrial Hemp Pilot Project of all activities pertaining to the UF/IFAS on-farm trial.
Hemp varieties will be planted at each farm to see how they perform under the differing conditions across the state.
On-farm trials with growers are just one of the new additions to the research. Experiments alongside industry supporters develop and expand as the project moves into its next phase.
“Our relationship with each industry partner is founded on the common goal of increasing hemp knowledge for growers across Florida,” adds Jerry Fankhauser, Lead Oversight manager of the UF/IFAS Industrial Hemp Pilot Project.
With the on-farm trials focused on the performance of different hemp varieties at farms around the state, the research with industry partners focuses on propagation, accumulation of cannabinoids during plant growth and commercialization of hemp genetics.
“The goal alongside our industry partners is to better understand propagation and commercialization of the crop in the state of Florida,” Fankhauser said. “With commercial licenses to cultivate hemp being issued by FDACS, we are in an exciting next phase of the program because we have the opportunity to learn by working together.”
Paul Rusnak is the senior managing online editor for Florida Grower, American Vegetable Grower, American Fruit Grower and Greenhouse Grower magazines
Farming Family Planted Hemp in 2019 — Here’s What They Learned
To hear Derek Azevedo tell it, Bowles Farming Company’s 2019 hemp growing experiment was part curiosity, part duty.
“We’re always looking for different crops we can grow. And even though hemp is the hot topic right now, we’re doing basically the same thing in carrots, garlic, and asparagus,” the farm’s executive vice president says.
That healthy curiosity was merely part of the equation that led the 11,000 acre, highly diversified specialty farm in California’s western San Joaquin Valley down the hemp path. Azevedo says it’s his job to explore all avenues for revenue to its governing board.
“We’ve got a fiduciary duty to explore all routes to generate new revenue for our board and shareholders. And with all the different changes in the Farm Bill, and with the legalization of medicinal CBD and other cannabinoids, we knew it was something we needed to take a closer look at,” Azevedo explains.
Applying the Ag Model to Hemp
Azevedo says Bowles began thinking about hemp as a possible crop back in 2017. Then the 2018 Farm Bill passed, and the group decided to give the crop a fair agronomic shake.
“We’re not cannabis guys. So we came at it from an ag space perspective,” he says. “When everyone was talking hemp making $100,000 per acre and all of these too-good-to-be-true numbers, we never bought into that hype. We took a more measured approach. Let’s look at this from an ag perspective, and let’s figure out how professional adults grow this stuff.”
The group didn’t pledge big acreage to the emerging crop. Rather, they established multiple small plot planting configurations. They wanted to test various strategies that have worked on the farm for specialty crops. They looked at things like planting it in 60-inch-wide rows with drip tape like tomatoes, or setting it up like cilantro under sprinkler.
They also avoided the flashy high CBD and CBG varieties that many commercial growers were planting in 2019. They opted instead for the cheaper grain-production (biomass) varieties to “just get the stuff in the ground.”
“The goal was to learn without losing,” Azevedo recalls. “Let’s model out these different production models and harvesting practices, and let’s go in at small scale this first year and see what we come out of this with. We didn’t plant with the intent to sell anything at the end of the season.”
Will Bowles Grow Hemp in the Future?
If pressed to grow hemp at commercial scale someday, Azevedo is confident the group could do it successfully. But it’s not something that the legacy California ag producer is interested in turning over major acreage to anytime soon.
“If we needed to scale up quickly and grow a bunch of hemp, then sure. We could go ahead and do that,” he says. “But for me, the problem to solve in hemp is not how to grow it. And it’s not seed — well, actually it’s partly seed. But the problem to solve is not in areas where we as a farm need to learn anything about it. We can grow it well, harvest it well, we can transplant young plants out of our greenhouse.
“Where I have problems with the crop is, number one, I don’t trust any of the seed suppliers,” Azevedo adds. “I’m sure there are some out there that are legit. But there was a bunch that had bad stuff go to seed last year, and it hurt farmers.”
Market forces are another aspect of hemp production that is virtually a non-starter at Bowles.
“The market is completely saturated with biomass. And then you have the extraction and processing side. And the [supply] chain there is weak and under served and made up of a hodgepodge of unorganized processing infrastructure,” Azevedo says. “And then, I think the science behind CBD and the health benefits on that has proven kind of weak, in my opinion.”
Azevedo’s advice for prospective hemp growers is simple: Have a plan. And make sure you will get paid before you plant a thousand acres of the stuff.
“Before you write that check, before you invest, just like with any other business, don’t speculate on what this stuff will be worth. Don’t plant it today before you figure out who’s going to buy it later,” he says. “I know I wouldn’t plant an acre of tomatoes if I didn’t know who is going to buy it, and that’s a lot cheaper [than hemp].”
Matthew J. Grassi is the technology editor for Greenhouse Grower and American Vegetable Grower
Mean Season in Florida: Living on the Edge of Drought and Deluge (related story below)
Even with April showers, relief from abnormally dry weather conditions has yet to come across much of Florida now well into May.
St. Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD) reported rainfall last month averaged 4 inches districtwide, which is 1.4 inches above the longterm average for the month. In fact, the district’s northernmost counties were well above average, with Baker County receiving 6.6 inches, Duval County with 5.6 inches, and Nassau County with 6.9 inches of rain in April.
On the opposite end of the precipitation spectrum was Seminole, Orange, Flagler, and Volusia counties with the least rainfall, reporting between 2.5 inches to 3 inches.
According to SJRWMD, all counties within its 18-county region — except Brevard County — have a 12-month rainfall deficit. Putnam, Flagler and St. Johns counties in the northeast part of the state each have a 12-month deficit greater than 10 inches.
Wildfires have been an issue during the back half of this year’s dry season, especially in parts of the Panhandle as well as southwest Florida. Last week, two wildfires broke out in central Collier County, west of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. These fires grew to nearly 9,000 acres.
NOAA recently reported that last month was the globe’s second-hottest April on record. For reference, that’s 141 years of data collecting.
The extra heat and extreme dry weather conditions also are adding more stress to crops and citrus trees that are already under pressure from pests and disease. The latest citrus crop estimates from USDA have included reduced numbers, likely due in part to extreme weather-related attrition.
Some natural balance should be restored soon with the onset of the wet season, right? The Atlantic hurricane season officially begins on June 1. Forecasters are calling for above-normal campaign as climate conditions appear to be shifting from a dominant neutral phase more toward a growing La Niña.
The first named storm of the season (Arthur) just couldn’t wait for the calendar, though, as it formed off the east coast of the state this past weekend, bringing modest rainfall to mostly parts of south Florida before moving up the east coast toward North Carolina.
Parts of Florida Dealing With Drought Conditions
Understandably, just about everything has taken a back seat to coronavirus lately. That includes the weather. In the meantime though, Florida’s dry season is looking to leave its mark before exiting stage left.
The Southwest Florida Water Management District’s (SWFWMD) Governing Board has voted to declare a Phase I Water Shortage for the District’s central and southern regions, which include Charlotte, DeSoto, Hardee, Highlands, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas, and Sarasota counties.
According to SWFMD, the primary purpose for a Phase I water shortage is to alert the public that watering restrictions could be forthcoming. The order also requires local utilities to review and implement procedures for enforcing year-round water conservation measures and water shortage restrictions, including reporting enforcement activity to the District.
Across the neighboring St. Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD) 18-county jurisdiction, rainfall is almost 6 inches below normal for the past three months, and March rainfall averaged barely one quarter inch. Moderate drought conditions have developed across most of the district, including Clay, Putnam, and St. Johns counties where 12-month rainfall totals are less than 40 inches. By comparison, the average 12-month rainfall is just more than 51 inches.
SJRWMD reports that groundwater levels in the Floridan aquifer have dropped by approximately 15% over the last month.
Earlier this month, the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) issued an order on water conservation measures with strict guidelines to property owners to follow irrigation schedules that conserve water amid drier than average conditions.
Statistics indicate rainfall has been about 6.5 inches below average from November 2019 to March 2020. Groundwater levels are decreasing districtwide and the U.S. Drought Monitor lists all of south Florida as experiencing at least “Moderate Drought” conditions with portions of Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade counties, and the lower east coast being classified as “Abnormally Dry.”
Florida’s dry season runs October through May, and April is historically one of the driest months of the year. Up next, hurricane season.
Leafy Green Growers Will Survive COVID-19
The 2020 leafy green season ran headlong into the outbreak of COVID-19. It’s a year-round crop category, shifting from region to region as seasons change. By the time it became apparent how extensively the pandemic would change fresh produce this year, fields in California were already being harvested.
“The lag in adjusting to the situation is mostly a two-month window for a crop like lettuce,” says Richard Smith, a University of California Vegetable Crop and Weed Science farm advisor at the Cooperative Extension in Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito counties.
The pandemic affects all areas of the vegetable industry, but none more so than the foodservice sector.
While that sector serves hospitals, the military, and prisons, two thirds of foodservice giants like Sysco are to restaurants.
“Roughly half of this [restaurant] segment is local independents and the other half is various chain restaurants. Many of these customers are still safely operating under take-out, drive-through and/or delivery options,” Sysco’s president and CEO Kevin Hourican said in a statement to his company’s investors.
So the impact on lettuce growers has depended on which customer they sell to.
“Companies varied in their level of exposure to this market that just collapsed,” Smith says. “Some were more exposed than others. Given other issues with the food distribution system, in general, some growers think that they may be 30% overplanted.”
Finding New Customers
A widely recognized strength of the vegetable industry is its flexibility. With the numerous tasks related to production and the variety of crops involved, growers are accustomed to finding solutions on the fly.
“Our members compete in the marketplace and have always done so without the market-distorting subsidies that some other commodities receive,” says Cory Lunde Sr., director of Strategic Initiatives and Communications. The nimbleness is an attribute the industry is relying upon like never before, because this is unlike anything the industry has faced in modern times.
“This situation is more akin to a disaster scenario and not the norm,” Lunde says.
And it’s a disaster that affects all parts of the world simultaneously. Generally, disasters are highly localized, and the rest of the industry can step in to help.
So growers are doing what they do best and figuring out ways to make it work. During the early stages of the pandemic, the solutions were highly individual.
Demands from grocery stores spiked early, before leveling out at a higher level than the non-COVID-19 era, Forbes magazine reports.
But naturally, the increase in grocery store demand did not meet the plunge in the food service sector.
So the industry continues to innovate.
Those who sell directly to consumers, whether through farmers markets, CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture), or on-farm sales, are ramping up those areas. They’re having to solve logistical problems along with finding ways to handle the new labor load. While there are plenty of unemployed, farms tend to be rural.
Smaller growers have a distinct advantage, since their size matches local populations more evenly, removing the need for long-distance transportation.
“We cannot keep up with the demand,” says Gail Vanik. Vanik and her husband grow greenhouse vegetables and host a winter farmers’ market.
“Local produce is perceived as a safer option possibly because it hasn’t been transported or handled as much as that in the grocery stores,” she says.
Florida Industry Mobilizes
This innovative spirit also can be found in other crops. Take a look at how the vegetable industry in Florida has responded.
South Florida grower R.C. Hatton plowed 100 acres of green beans (or about 2 million pounds) and 60 acres of cabbage (or 5 million pounds). Tony DiMare, vice president of DiMare Fresh, estimated that by season’s end, about 10 million pounds of the company’s tomato crop will go unharvested.
Many farmers in the Immokalee area were forced to empty coolers as perishable products found no buyers. Just one farm had reported the need to dump more than 100,000 pounds of product by the first week of April.
According to Gene McAvoy, UF/IFAS Vegetable Extension agent emeritus, with normal markets drying up, some farms are trying new ways to move product. Sam S. Accursio and Sons Farms’ packinghouse in Homestead opened its doors to direct sales. The family sold produce boxes for $10.
Over two weekends, 120,000 pounds of produce (squash, tomatoes, beans, and cucumbers) were sold. In addition, they partnered with a blueberry grower, H&A Farms in Mt. Dora, to move 20,000 flats of berries sold at 12 pints for $20.
“While we’re doing our best to divert supplies to the grocery segment, it will not be nearly enough to offset the losses from the reduced business in food service,” says Michael Schadler, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange.
“Needless to say, this is a disaster for most of our growers as we’re fully planted for the spring crop, which was just beginning to be harvested.”
Frank Giles, Carol Miller is the editor of American Vegetable Grower
Florida Tomato Cornbread
2 large Florida tomatoes, chopped
1 box natural cornbread mix
1 onion, diced small
1 cup jack cheese, grated
Sea salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste
Prepare cornbread batter as indicated on the package. Preheat oven as listed on the cornbread box instructions. Preheat a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Cook onion until tender in a small amount of olive oil, seasoning with salt and pepper. Fold half of the cheese into the cornbread batter. Pour batter into pan over the onions. Add remaining cheese to the top of the cornbread mixture. Sprinkle the tomatoes over the batter. Bake as directed on box. Remove from oven when golden brown and cooked throughout. Let cool slightly and serve warm.