Water dominates discussion on ELDP South Florida trip

Florida’s wettest winter in recent memory was a recurring theme during the FFVA Emerging Leader Development Program’s tour of South Florida agriculture operations in early March.

Ditches and canals were brimming, and the Lake Okeechobee water level stood at almost 16 feet. Producers were still dealing with the effects of a warm December complete with thunderstorms and high winds, along with record rainfall in January. The bad weather damaged fields and caused gaps in production and delays in harvesting.

Still, the 2½-day tour was packed with stops that gave the 11 members of Class 5 an up-close look at a variety of crops and production practices and a chance to have in-depth conversations with some of Florida’s biggest specialty crop producers.

The ELDP group was joined by members of Western Growers Association’s Future Volunteer Leaders Program. South Florida’s high water levels made quite an impression on the producers from California, where agriculture has endured a multi-year drought.

The trip was a networking opportunity for both groups. “We were fortunate on this trip to have the Western Growers’ group traveling with us.  Our programs complement each other well,” said ELDP program director Sonia Tighe. “It’s exciting to have the participants interact with each other and observe the operations together.”

Starting with sugar

ELDP Class 5 learned about harvesting sugar cane on the first day of the tour.

The tour kicked off with an intensive half-day in Belle Glade focused on sugar cane production. Les Baucum, an agronomist with U.S. Sugar Corporation, explained growing, harvesting and milling practices, and the group got to see cane being burned before harvest. Barbara Miedema of the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida explained issues associated with flood control in South Florida and the water concerns that growers face. She also highlighted the producers’ accomplishments in reducing nutrients in water leaving their fields beyond what the state has required.

For some participants, it was their first look at sugar cane production.

“The scale of sugar cane operations in Florida is very impressive,” said Class 5 member Ben Lahr of Driscoll’s. “From the popping sound of burning cane, to the sheer size of ‘Sugar Mountain,’ and the trucks and rail lines used to move the cane to the plants, there’s a lot of work that goes into making those little sugar packets that make our life a little sweeter.”

TKM’s Stephen Basore and ELDP Class 3 graduate Daniel Cavazos of Vegpro International teamed up to give the group an overview of lettuce harvesting, precooling, processing and packing. Jonathan Allen, a graduate of ELDP Class 2, showed off R.C. Hatton’s cabbage fields, explaining that this was the company’s first season growing the crop.

Citrus and veggies impress

Jamie Williams shows the group around Lipman Produce's tomato fields.

Jamie Williams hosted the group for a tour of Lipman Produce’s tomato fields in Loxahatchee. The director of the company’s farm operations talked in detail about Lipman’s participation in the H-2A guest-worker program, the housing it provides for workers, its wage policies and other workforce processes. Notably, it was the first time that an ELDP class bus didn’t get stuck in the field’s soft sand and have to be hauled out by tractor. But that may be because the group rode in a harvest crew bus deftly driven by Ricky Ramirez.

Citrus greening disease and its devastating toll on the industry was the focus of two of the tour stops. Rick Kress, president of Southern Gardens Citrus, drove home the gravity of the situation in his presentation. He explained the industry’s research efforts under way and the sense of urgency to develop potential solutions. In the meantime, he said, growers are using every tool at their disposal to manage infected groves. Rob Atchley of A. Duda & Sons’ citrus operation in LaBelle – and Class 1 ELDP alum – explained his company’s positive outlook and investment in new plantings with an eye toward the future, despite greening.

After a morning of talking citrus, the group traveled to L&M Farm’s plant in LaBelle, where pepper packing was in full swing. Operations manager Adam Lytch gave an overview of the company’s extensive vegetable operations.

The variety of crops and operations throughout the tour made an impression on the participants. “The highlight for me on this trip was visiting all levels and scale of production throughout South Florida, from smaller growers and packers to large processing facilities with multiple suppliers,” said Class 5 member Kevin Yue of Lipman. “It was an eye-opening experience in understanding the impact agriculture has on Florida’s environment and economy.”

Lofty topics

All eyes were on the sky on the final morning of the trip as a crew from Highland Precision Ag demonstrated the company’s aerial scouting services offered by drones. The unmanned craft are programmed to fly over fields and gather data that help growers monitor the condition of the crops and make decisions regarding spray programs, harvesting and more. As the drones buzzed overhead, two mature bald eagles watched from a just-harvested sugar cane field.

The group also spent time with Paul Orsenigo of Grower’s Management, who discussed issues with water levels and discharges from Lake Okeechobee. Orsenigo, FFVA’s vice chairman, was part of the FFVA Leadership Development Committee that established the ELDP. He told the participants how proud he is of the program and urged them to stay engaged and look for leadership opportunities in the industry. At J&J Family of Farms in Loxahatchee, director of farming Dick Bowman led the group on a tour of bell pepper fields that were being harvested.

During the trip, the class presented the RCMA Child Development Center in Belle Glade with food for the families the center serves. Class 5 members had conducted a food drive in the weeks before the trip.

The tour was topped off by a panel discussion featuring FFVA President Mike Stuart; Ken Barbic, Western Growers’ director of federal government relations; and Matt Joyner, director of federal affairs for Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. In a wide-ranging conversation, they talked about immigration, water issues, and presidential politics.

Stuart noted that agriculture’s use of the H-2A guest-worker program has grown significantly. “We’ve seen a steep trajectory in the past three to five years in use of H-2A. As of 2015, Florida is the largest user of H-2A workers in the country,” he said. “We’re going to continue to see that growth. But just because we’ve sought a solution for a program that’s difficult to use doesn’t mean we still don’t need a broader fix for the system.”

On the presidential campaign, Barbic observed that a Donald Trump presidency would be tough to predict.

“A Trump administration would present certain challenges and difficulty in even figuring out what will happen,” he said. “Conventional wisdom is no longer conventional wisdom…. The rise of ‘anti-establishment’ – whatever that means – whether you’re ‘Big Ag,’ ‘Big Government,’ whatever you are … there’s this growing fervor against it that doesn’t make sense entirely. You don’t look for less experience when you go to the dentist or get on a plane.”

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