With produce profits wilting, Miami-Dade growers turn to tree farming
By Frank Norton
High operating costs and competition due to the North American Free Trade Agreement are forcing third-generation Homestead farmer John Alger to rethink his harvest.
The traditional farmer can no longer depend on tomatoes, potatoes and corn, he says, because the crops are no longer a profitable business in Miami-Dade County. Mr. Alger and others are diversifying from fruits and vegetables into tree farming - a product growing hand-in-hand with South Florida's fertile home-building industry.
As long as interest rates stay low and the house-building boom fuels landscaping demands, we'll have a lot of nursery growing, said Bob Plyler, part owner and manager of Arvida Nurseries in Homestead.
While Miami-Dade ranks second in the state to Palm Beach County in total horticulture sales, $790 compared to $893 million, it is the state leader in the nursery-grower division with more than $325 million in revenue annually. Nearly all of that comes from the southern region of the county.
Mr. Alger and other farmers said the average nursery can gross tremendously more money per acre and that usually also means higher profits.
"Horticulture is extremely intense - it's coming," he said of a time when tree and plant nurseries will completely supplant fruit and vegetable growing in South Miami-Dade's agro-economy.
Mr. Alger is the president of Alger Farms, founded nearly 70 years ago by his grandfather Mason Alger, who grew potatoes, tomatoes and corn.
But those industries have been shrinking.
"There were 11 potato growers in South-Dade in 1995 and now there are two," he said referring to himself and Castonguay Farms.
"The trend has not been good. We lost nine growers in last seven years. There's two left - you do the math."
In a recent report on factors affecting the profitability and suitability of Miami-Dade Agriculture, Dr. Robert Degner of the University of Florida said vegetable and fruit growers are facing serious economic challenges.
"The economic returns to operators and landlords are currently insufficient to keep large acreages of row crop and grove land in agriculture, and the long-term outlook is increasingly grim," he stated.
"The nursery industry, however, has shown robust growth utilizing 12,000 acres, doubling the acreage reported in 1992."
Although Mr. Alger has set aside less than one-tenth of his 1,850 acres of farmland for oaks, mahogany, pigeon plum and palm trees, last year the landscaping products accounted for about 15% of his total revenue.
"We'll probably convert another 200 acres to tree farming over the next three years or so. We're putting emphasis on it," he said.
Nursery growers now account for about one-third of Florida's nearly $10 billion horticulture industry, which also includes related retail and landscaping sectors, according to a University of Florida report released this year entitled "Florida's Environmental Horticulture Industry."
"I think what this all boils down to is economic adaptation," said Charles LaPradd, communications and marketing manager for the City of Homestead. "These farmers have lost share in one market so it's (a matter of) adapting to another enterprise."
According to Jane Spurling, president of Florida Nurserymen & Growers Association's Miami-Dade chapter, the shift toward nursery farming in the county is dramatic.
She said of the 22 farmers in 1976 with more than 1,000 acres of row crops only two are left, while the number of nurseries has grown to 900.
"Economically speaking the yield is much greater," she said.
Premium palm and shade trees like shady ladies and oak can sell at up to $1,000 a sapling, usually in the 8- to 10-foot-tall range, said Mr. Plyler.
"The trees have been doing very well but they cycle up and down with the building industry. You tell me when the building market is going to slow down and I'll tell you when we will too," Mr. Algers said.
Other Homestead farmers are more apocalyptic toward South Florida's agriculture business.
Ed Castonguay of Castonguay Farms predicted that while competition from Mexico has eliminated much of the row-crop farming in the county, housing development will eventually put an end to nursery growers as well.
"The tree farms will be the last to go because they're the ones driven by the development boom, but I see all agriculture coming to an end because there won't be any land left," Mr. Castonguay said. "As a landowner I feel good about it; as a farmer I don't," he said, referring to residential development and the demand for land.
According to Mr. LaPradd, it's not the lack of farmland but the ability to make money in other sectors that may eventually lead to the demise of agriculture.
If the development trend continues, farmers say, Homestead's blossoming horticulture industry could be consumed by the same real estate business now driving it.
"Is it more prudent," Mr. LaPradd asks rhetorically, "to sell your farmland to a real estate developer for $50,000 or to a bean grower for $10,000?"