Producer member profile: Rick Roth on the Everglades, cooperation and family

Grower Rick Roth in his Belle Glade packinghouse, Ray's Heritage.

The history of Florida agriculture is rich with stories of hardworking families whose generations persevered through storms and sunshine to create the state’s second largest industry. Longtime FFVA board member Rick Roth comes from one of those families.

His family’s story is “the classic example of the American dream,” Roth says. His father, Ray, who grew up growing leafy vegetables and radishes with his father Walter in Ohio, set out for the Sunshine State in 1948 with nothing more than a pickup truck, his dog and a one-row vegetable planter.  Walter had leased 100 acres in Belle Glade from a farmer from his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio.  He later sold the family farm and moved to Belle Glade, where they farmed as W.D. Roth and Son.

In the early years, Ray joined with Sam Knight and Sam Senter, taking their leafy vegetables and radishes to Lake Shore Growers Cooperative. As they expanded, they leased land from the Wedgworth family. In 1955, the family purchased their first 110 acres adjacent to Sam Senter Road.

In 1962, members of a Cuban family let their option to buy a large tract of land expire because they thought they would be returning home. Castro destroyed the family’s plans, but opened up a door for Ray Roth.  He and Fritz Stein, Sam Knight, and Dr. Clarence Kidder put a down payment to purchase 10,000-plus acres of land called Gladeview. Roth Farms purchased more than 1,600 acres of this virgin land for $300 per acre 13 miles east of Belle Glade adjacent to SR 80.  That same year, Roth Farms grew its first sugar cane crop as a founding member of Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida.

Ray’s next big break came  in 1968 when he joined forces with Billy Rogers and ‘Mutt’ Thomas as the only grower of lettuce, leafy vegetables, parsley and radishes at South Bay Growers Cooperative in South Bay, Fla.

Green beans ready to go at Ray's Heritage packinghouse,

Rick became president of the Western Palm Beach County Farm Bureau in 1985.When Ray Roth passed away in 1986, Rick was 33. Rick remembers, “People suggested I step down as local county farm bureau president when Dad passed away. But I had already decided that as a farmer and business owner that political involvement was a key component to my success.”  Thanks to strong leaders in the community like South Bay Growers General Manager Frank Teets, Rick was asked to replace his father as an FFVA board member, and did so in 1986.

He already had a decade of experience working with his dad, but Rick credits much of the company’s continued success to James Smith, Jr. who retired in 1996 after 40 years as farm manager. Rick later joined the Florida Farm Bureau’s board of directors in 1997 on his way to serving as vice president for 10 years until 2010.

Today, Roth Farms produces a variety of lettuce and leafy vegetables, parsley, radishes, sugar cane and rice. In addition, in a joint venture with John E. “Buddy” McKinstry , JEM-ROTH grows sweet corn and green beans.

Roth fulfilled a long-term goal of building a packinghouse in 2007 with the opening of Ray’s Heritage LLC, named in honor of his father. The packinghouse is fully automated and uses state-of-the-art, high-efficiency ammonia refrigeration and 35-degree hydro cooling for leaf, sweet corn, radishes and green beans. Every detail of construction was designed to maximize food safety and better handling.  Roth’s minority partners in this separate company are Buddy McKinstry and his sisters Susan Roth and Christy LeCroy.


A balanced approach to Everglades restoration

A canal in the Everglades Agricultural Area, one of the nation's most productive agricultural areas.Roth has been involved in efforts to restore the Everglades for decades. “I was president of Western Palm Beach Farm Bureau when the first federal lawsuit was filed against the state for polluting the Everglades in 1988. Not only was our county Farm Bureau a defendant, but Roth Farms was, too,” he said. “So I’ve been intimately involved with this issue from the beginning.”

Roth understands the need to reduce phosphorus runoff and participated with other farmers in 1995 to develop Best Management Practices to reach that goal. He is concerned that environmental regulations are routinely set at levels that are not achievable with little or no hard evidence as to the harm done or harm those limits do.

“More than 60,000 acres of land in the Everglades Agricultural Area has been taken out [of farming] to achieve Everglades restoration goals,” Roth said. “And there’s a project on the drawing board to take another 6,000 acres out of production to increase stormwater treatment areas.”  Roth says the environmentalists’ goal for phosphorus levels is 10 parts per billion throughout the Everglades Protection Area, which includes the existing water conservation areas and Everglades National Park.

“It’s an arbitrary number not based on any scientific analysis. To start with, clean rainfall collected in the Everglades contains 38 parts per billion of phosphorous. Levels in Everglades National Park have never been more than 10 parts per billion of phosphorous. By the time the water slowly meanders more than 80 miles southward, all the nutrients have settled out,” he said.

He continued. “The extreme low levels in the water conservation areas and the national park are actually limiting wildlife’s food supply.  The current level of phosphorus coming out of the stormwater treatment areas is 20 to 30 parts per billion, and wildlife is actually moving up from the water conservation areas into the STAs looking for food.

“What bothers me is that it is obvious that this effort is not about cleaning up the water. It’s about pushing human activity out of the region.  The environmental groups’ goals are anti-food, anti-water supply, and anti-people. To the average person, Everglades restoration means removing excess phosphorous from waters entering the Everglades to return the remaining Everglades to its pristine state.

“To the professional environmental community, it means returning all the land to its original footprint of the ‘River of Grass’ from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay.  Since private agriculture interests own and farm the land, standards were set so low they cannot be met. Lawsuits and land deals have increased food production costs, taken valuable farm land out of production and off the tax rolls, and reduced food production,” Roth said.

The Everglades Agricultural Area with 450,000 acres in production, is one of the most productive regions of farmland in the United States. More than 80 percent of the land produces crops year-round, and the remaining land is in production more than 10 months.  Roth emphasizes that crop rotation and Best Management Practices help farmers produce more food per acre per year using less chemicals and fertilizer than other production areas.  In these times of rising world population and food prices, federal deficits and outsourcing of American jobs, Roth says, this aggressive approach defies common sense. Instead of unattainable regulations that result in expensive lawsuits and lost jobs, he says he is an advocate for incremental regulations that achieve decreased nutrient runoff as better technology becomes available.


The future is in vertical integration, cooperation

Roth also grows and packs radishes.

The good news, Roth says, is that Florida agriculture continues to diversify and improve its economic outlook by vertical integration and diversification.  More than 85 percent of the crops grown in the EAA are sold at the retail level by the farmer who actually produced them, he said. “All of the sugar that’s produced in the EAA is sold into the marketplace at the retail level by the farmers. When you add to that tray-pack sweet corn, prepackaged green beans and radishes, you have another 30 percent of all the vegetables grown in the area shipped in consumer-ready packages. So the industry has continued to make progress in not only environmental stewardship but also in packaging and marketing,” he added.

Much of that marketing success is a result of cooperation between growers and packers. “For over 20 years now we have had a culture of working together,” Roth said. “It’s a culture that started first with the sugar industry and then moved to vegetable farmers, who are one and the same in the EAA. Sugarcane farmers with their vegetable hats on have implemented practices using cooperative efforts based on successful efforts in the sugarcane industry. A key example is the Florida Sweet Corn Exchange, managed by FFVA. There are only five major packinghouses in the ‘Glades, but they work very well together under the Exchange. The farmers have learned to work together and to trust each other,” Roth said.

Roth believes he will see a day when the sales of EAA vegetables will be consolidated further, which will help the vegetable industry remain sustainable and profitable.


Family is the greatest joy

Rick's son Ryan hard at work in the fields.

Roth is most content when surrounded by family. In July, he was vacationing in the mountains of North Carolina with family, including his son and daughter-in-law Ryan and Jade, 8-year-old granddaughter Jewel, and 5-month-old granddaughter Ella Rae.

“The greatest joy for any farmer is for family members to join the business,” Roth said. “I am very blessed that my brother-in-law Dennis LeCroy has been in the business since 1981. He’s the farm manager, and Ryan is in charge of the vegetable crop production and the crop-protection materials.”

One of the secrets of farming, Roth says, is that “most farmers grew up in small towns and their fathers were farmers with a strong work ethic. In a small town, you know everybody and the people you work with and your suppliers are your friends too. You choose carefully and are slow to make changes. Suppliers  and your salesmen are your partners in your success.”

“Honesty and hard work are the heritage of the rural American farmer. That’s what makes it satisfying and worthwhile,” he said.


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