Producer member profile: Tater Farms

 – Evolving and conserving –

When Eric Hjort was named Tater Farms’ general manager in 2006, the farm had a 30-year history of growing a diversified mixture of chip potatoes, cabbage, sod, onions and assorted other crops. Two years ago, the farm changed its focus almost exclusively to sod, and Hjort has been able to capitalize on his extensive experience in sod production.

The Hastings farm in northeast Florida, owned by Frank and Polly Johns, now grows about 1,200 acres of sod. “Frank and Polly made the decision to drop potatoes for various reasons,” said Hjort. “We’ve actually been growing sod since 2005, though. Some years were tough with the downtrend in construction, but we stuck with it. A lot of people have gotten out of sod, though. In this county alone, there used to be about 6,000-plus acres, and now there are probably less than 2,000 acres.”

Tater Farms also sets aside acres for University of Florida research projects. The farm is participating in a project to determine the best cultivar of zoysia grass for Florida lawns. “We’re growing 31 different varieties here alone. That’s only a small sample of what UF is doing. The hope here is to pull one or two of these 31 grasses to see if we can find the one that’s the most user-friendly.”

Harvesting sod at Tater Farms.

As far as its standard crops, the farm grows a combination of Floratam St. Augustine, which makes up the bulk of its production, three other varieties of St. Augustine, plus Bermuda, zoysia and bahia. It takes about a year from planting to harvesting. “That took some getting used to,” Hjort said. “With potatoes, you plant the crop, you grow the crop, you harvest the crop … With sod it’s the same thing, but potatoes are a 90-day crop and sod is pretty much year-round. “

And it’s very perishable. “You want to get the sod laid within two days of harvest,” Hjort said. “The sooner it’s laid, the better success you’ll have with it. We have sold it to people as far away as Tallahassee, but in general, we like to stay within 100 miles of the farm. A lot of our business goes to larger landscape companies, but we [also] sell to small landscapers like the guys with a pickup truck and a wheelbarrow. We sell to retail people if they want to come here and pick it up, but most our business is with large landscapers.”

Like vegetable crops, growing sod has its share of challenges, including weather, pests and above all, water. Tater Farms stands out for its dedication to using as little water as possible and reducing runoff.  Hjort is one of several growers who are involved with the Tri-County Agricultural Area water project, which funds efforts to manage runoff. Principle players in the project are the St. Johns River Water Management District, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service as well as several other growers.

Tater Farms is part of a region-wide effort to conserve water and reduce runoff.

“We’re working to determine how we can reduce runoff from agricultural lands and how we can improve water quality,” said Hjort. “We have a problem with saltwater intrusion, so it makes sense that in order to deal with that you have to learn to use less water. We’re moving toward much more efficient irrigation practices.”

One of those practices is the use of a center pivot, which Hjort predicts will be much more efficient than the current method of seep irrigation. “How much? That’s being determined, but I’m thinking a 50 to 70 percent savings,” he said.

Another project in the works is called irri-drain, which is basically a series of pipes placed below the ground to essentially hold the water table up under the fields.

“We have about 480 acres involved with these irrigation projects,” Hjort said. “About 160 acres use the center pivot method, 160 acres traditional seep irrigation and 80 acres use irri-drain. We are monitoring the runoff from all three systems as well as the water usage.”

To improve water quality, a fertilizer application practice called banding is also underway. “This method lets us drop the fertilizer in just the right place to keep it from getting into the ditches between the rows and eventually into the water system,” Hjort said.

Additional projects to be funded by the DEP are being put in place in the region.

“These are the kinds of things we’ve kicked off in the last couple of years, and hopefully they’re going to make a difference. Hopefully, we’ll make some important improvements in both reducing runoff and improving water quality,” Hjort said.

Learn more about cost-share opportunities in the Tri-County Agricultural Area here.

Learn more about grasses that do well in Florida here.

Learn more about the benefits of grasses here.

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