While much of the nation is just waking up to spring, Palm Beach County’s vegetable farming industry is in high gear, supplying millions of pounds of fresh produce by the truckload throughout the country.
South Floridians can buy truly locally produced sweet corn, celery, lettuce, Chinese vegetables, radishes, green beans, herbs and more at the supermarket. Just look for the “Fresh from Florida” logo. The $355 million worth of vegetables produced in Palm Beach County are shipped all over the country with most being sold on the Eastern Seaboard, said Arthur Kirstein, the county’s agricultural economic development director.
“We are probably one of the top three buy-local counties in the U.S.,” said Kirstein, who is part of the University of Florida’s cooperative extension service. “During the winter, we don’t have a lot of competition. During April and May, we grow 90 to 95 percent of the corn produced in the U.S.”
In terms of agricultural receipts, Palm Beach County is the largest producer east of the Mississippi River and one of the biggest farming counties in the United States. Largely due to sugar cane, total agricultural sales in 2011-12 were $1.57 billion, Kirstein said.
On a recent morning east of Belle Glade, a strong wind blew the fine, powdery black muck as workers used large knives to cut iceberg, romaine, red leaf, green leaf and Boston lettuce in the field. Removing the outer leaves from the iceberg, they quickly wrapped it in “cello” — cellophane.
“We do have a problem with wind erosion, particularly in March,” said Rick Roth, 60, president of Roth Farms, Belle Glade.
His son, Ryan Roth, 29, is busy overseeing a group of independent lettuce harvesters the Roths have allowed into the field.
“This is some hucksters. They will put it in a generic box and sell it directly to restaurants and produce markets. Less than 1 percent of the crop is sold this way,” Rick Roth said.
The direct sales make even more sense this year because lettuce prices are high, at $25 to more than $30 a box for 24 heads. That’s because California and Mexico’s crops have been hit by cold weather. With supplies tight, Glades-area growers are receiving prices five times that of the 2011-12 season.
“Last year, everybody had good weather, and the lettuce market was dirt cheap. We couldn’t sell lettuce last year, not even for $5 a box,” Roth said.
But first the lettuce is trucked into town to Ray’s Heritage, a 60,000-square-foot, $12 million state-of-the-art packinghouse opened in 2007 and named after Roth’s father, who began farming in the Glades in 1948. The cooling system is run by a computer.
At Ray’s Heritage, lettuce from Roth Farms and other growers is vacuum-cooled by the pallet. Each pallet holds 35 boxes.
Once cooled, the produce is placed in cold storage rooms. Refrigerated trucks then take it to distribution centers of such major retailers as Publix, Wal-Mart, Winn-Dixie and Kroger.
Other crops, such as Napa, a type of Chinese cabbage, parsley, endive, escarole and sweet corn, are hydro-cooled, using water instead of a vacuum tube. The Napa is cooled by the pallet with 4,500 gallons of 33-degree water per minute raining down on it. The system with four 60-foot tubes can cool produce for up to 60 minutes.
Most of the produce goes from the field to the store in three to five days. Like lettuce, some crops are packed in boxes in the field, and others, such as green beans and radishes, are packed at one of eight packinghouses in the Glades. Some sweet corn is packed in the field, but more and more of it is being packaged at the packinghouse for food safety reasons.
April is easily when the most produce is harvested, driven by the massive sweet corn crop.
John Hundley, vice president/production, Hundley Farms, east of Belle Glade, said last year his farm harvested in excess of 3 million 50-ear boxes of sweet corn.
Hundley Farms’ vegetables are packed and packaged at Pioneer Growers Cooperative. Hundley is a part owner of Pioneer, which opened a new $5 million packinghouse in 2006.
“Pioneer has been in business for over 65 years. For as long as I can remember, we have shipped corn to Europe.”
Hundley’s grandfather began farming in the Glades in 1935.
“My dad continued the business and changed it. We have been able to expand and continue to thrive. We have a lot of employees who have worked for us well over 30 years,” Hundley said.
Many of the farms that grow vegetables also produce sugar cane and rice, but vegetables are a large part of the mix, and give farms diversification. Crop rotation, especially the planting of rice in the summer and flooding those fields, helps control pest and weeds and allows farmers to use fewer chemicals and increase production.
“At any given time, 25 percent of the land is in fresh vegetables. We are talking 100,000-plus acres of livelihood in vegetables. We are the only place in the country that gets taxed to farm,” Hundley said, referring to Everglades taxes.
“We also farm in Georgia. We are heroes up there. They have parades for farmers up there. It’s amazing. In the Glades, we’re extremely isolated,” Hundley said.
Mike Robinson, vice president of eastern vegetable operations for Duda Farm Fresh Foods in Belle Glade, said that with fuel prices higher than normal this year, Florida’s vegetable production played a crucial role in keeping prices moderate for East Coast consumers.
Duda farms in several other states, including California where it produces 35 million pounds of celery a year compared with 20 million pounds a year in Florida.
Celery, which resembles a lush hedge as it’s growing, is cleaned, washed and trimmed in the field. Then it goes to a pre-cooler where it is chilled to 38 to 42 degrees. It is then stored at 36 to 38 degrees.
Among Duda and its partners it takes about 1,200 people to get the crops grown, harvested and packed.
Weather this year has been unusual with a string of cold days in March. Unlike other recent years, there were no major freezes. Freezing temperatures were reached briefly the morning of March 4.
“It caught us all by surprise. It dropped down below 32. It was widespread but it didn’t last long. Our grower partner on corn, Knight Management, lost over 600 acres,” Robinson said.
But in general, prices are good and growers are having a good season. Farmers are accustomed to the weather’s unpredictability.
“If anybody tries to dictate what next year’s weather is going to be,” Robinson said, “they’re not being practical.”
Top winter/spring vegetables produced in Palm Beach County
Sweet corn, green beans, lettuce, bell peppers, Chinese vegetables, celery, eggplant, radishes
Total vegetable production is valued at $355 million.
About 36 percent of the county’s land mass, or 461,588 acres, is dedicated to agriculture.
The largest chunk is sugar cane, followed by vegetables, pasture, sod, equestrian and tropical fruit.
Sources: Palm Beach County Agricultural Extension Service,