– A grower panel of four FFVA producer members sharing production tips opened the annual Florida Ag Expo in Balm in early November. The panel, “Finding Fixes on the Farm,” featured Todd McClure of West Coast Tomato; Danny Johns, Blue Sky Farms (potatoes); Dudley Calfee, Ferris Farms (strawberries) and David Hill of Southern Hill Farms (blueberries).
Topics tackled included conservation techniques, cost-saving packinghouse reinventions, labor relations and the inevitable paperwork that goes with the job. The panel was moderated by FFVA Director of Membership Sonia Tighe.
The following are highlights of questions and answered covered in the panel discussion.
What kind of production challenges have you had and how are you overcoming them?
McClure: Some of our farms are 100 percent drip irrigation. Our largest farm, in Immokalee, is 100 percent drip irrigation, which happened out of necessity. Another farm, farther south right near the Everglades, is about half and half – half seepage irrigation, half drip. We do what we have to do to make bad areas into good areas.
Johns: Everything we do in agriculture is based on necessity. It’s constantly evolving – irrigation techniques, fertilizer techniques. Out of necessity we’re trying different crops. The potato market is declining, so we’re always trying to find out what’s the next market, what’s the next thing to do. We are banding fertilizer now and doing a lot of research with the University of Florida. It’s good to collaborate. Working together helps us all.
Calfee: I like to build a culture where you encourage your employees to give you ideas. The guys in the trenches come up with the greatest things on my farm. The other thing we like to do is visit other farms. I’ve never left a farm when I didn’t see something that I thought would apply to our farm. And the third thing is working with the scientists and UF. They keep us sharp. The young people who come out to our fields, they need field experience. They have a lot of book experience, but they need to get out there and see how an actual agricultural organization runs. So what that’s done for us is – we helped Dr. Natalia Perez develop a strawberry advisory system. It predicts fungal growth, so we reduced our fungicide spray by 50 percent. We’re also able to reuse some of our plastic drip tubing. And we’re recycling cardboard. We just always look for ways to minimize our costs and I think farmers are some of biggest environmentalists. None of us wants to put anything in the soil that doesn’t need to be there. And we don’t want to do any harm. We want to protect and maintain our ag operations. Also, SWFMD has some programs where they’ll pay for a big portion of pump automation.
Hill: My father-in-law started a vegetable farm on Lake Apopka back in the early ‘50s and it ran forever. My generation kind of took over in the ‘80s, but then there were problems with pumping water into the lake. So in 1998, the state of Florida bought all of the farms to reclaim the wetlands. My wife, Lisa, and I decided grow trees on 120 acres south of Clermont. We got 80 out of the 120 acres planted, and then the recession hit. I had never been affected by a recession when we were growing food, but when you’re growing ornamental trees, you’re tied to the housing market. We had 40 extra acres and we had enough trees, so we decided to grow blueberries four years ago. We just finished planting last year. Back [when we farmed] on the muck by Lake Apopka, we irrigated with lake water and it was always an issue. When we started farming in Clermont we used 100 percent reclaimed water … we didn’t have a well on the property … till we started growing blueberries. You can’t spray reclaimed water on blueberries, so we built a well for that. We went from being what the Orlando Sentinel used to call bad guys for using the water from Lake Apopka to the good guys using the reclaimed water.
Let’s shift gears and talk about shipping and packing. Are you doing anything new there?
McClure: About 10 years ago, we cut our labor costs in half in the packinghouse by removing an entire line of grading belts and installing fast-motion cameras that take pictures of every single tomato. It’s got rollers and it individually moves tomatoes one at a time as the tomato spins so it’s getting pictures from all different angles. And then the cameras talk to the control tower and determine size, color and any defects. So it’s saved labor costs and also given our buyers a little more reliability in what we can send their way.
Johns: We’ve had to adjust the packinghouse some to comply with food safety requirements. The customers require traceability now, so we have to provide that. We use an optical sorter on potatoes also and we’re doing more specialty potatoes now, trying to get out of the commodity mentality, so it takes some specialized equipment to harvest it and to run it through the packinghouse. That’s a neat thing about farming. You have the engineering side of it and how to use the same optical sorter for your seed-cutting process and things. So you take the technologies available and improve the process in different areas.
Calfee: The whole thing in strawberries is quality in the field. Because once the picker picks it and puts it in the clamshell, it’s never touched until you pick it up in the grocery store. So working with some other growers, about five years ago, we beta-tested the Fresh QC trace-back system that Wish Farms developed. It basically links the flat to the picker, the field, the variety, date and time. So our customers down the line can go on our website and put their comments up. So Mrs. Jones in Boston can say that the fruit the she bought tasted good, or was watery … We were all skeptical about it at first and so were the pickers – but it’s really nailed down quality. I find out that most of the time Mrs. Jones is right. If she says it tastes watery, I’ll look back and sure enough, the day before it was picked we had some rain. I take the comments out to the field and hand them out to everyone and I don’t say anything. But the good [comments] have a $5 bill stapled to the paper. So the quality improves, and they’re picking more fruit. We also try to create a culture of quality on the farm. Everybody is looking at the fruit. They understand that the quality is important.
What have you been doing as far as marketing lately?
Hill: We started a U-Pick operation on weekends. I look forward to it. It puts a face on the farmers and gives the customers a personal touch. Now we have some of those customers for life. We also reach out using social media and it’s been huge. It’s free advertising. If we get the word out, people come running.
Johns: We like to get the word out about how high-tech ag is. There’s GPS, optical sorting machines, precision agriculture everywhere you look. We like to bring the public and especially the regulators out on the farm and show them what agriculture looks like today. And of the people who tour our farm, I’d say 98 percent leave with a positive attitude. They’ll say, “I didn’t have any idea this is what you guys did.”
McClure: We do a lot of tours. We participate in the area’s Farm/City Week with tours of the farms and the packinghouse. We’re proud of what we do. On the larger farm, we pass Global GAP audits and we have our labor agreement and we’re proud to get the word out about that. I believe that making people aware of the benefits of eating healthy fruit and vegetables generally helps our market. I don’t have a lot of consumer contact, but people always ask, “Where can I buy your tomatoes?” By the time our product is in the store, it usually has someone else’s sticker on it. Or it’s chopped up in your Taco Bell or Subway [order].
If you see a sandwich wrapper that has pictures of tomatoes on it, like they’ve done at Subway, you might be more inclined to ask for tomatoes. So that’s free advertising even if they don’t actually see our name on the product.
Calfee: We have a retail store and we use social media to stay in touch with our customers. We also use Constant Contact email. And one of the reasons we started the Ag Alliance of Citrus County was that we growers wanted to bring ag issues to the forefront in the county. People didn’t realize how important it was to the quality of life in the county, and now we have over 120 members. The politicians, property appraiser and real estate agents all come to our meetings. It’s become a tremendous voice for ag in Citrus County. I don’t think all that many people knew about the intensity of agriculture in the area. It’s about $10 million business for our tiny county, but that’s a lot for a small county. I will also do tours for young people, because they need to know that their food isn’t grown on the roof of Publix.
Let’s get to the topic of labor. What are you doing to attract and retain a quality workforce?
McClure: At harvest we pay an hourly rate. It seems to attract a little bit of an older workforce. Older can be more experienced and a better job. It may just take a little longer. But we do give them a piece-work incentive on top of an hourly wage, so they’re encouraged to keep moving … and it’s made for a pretty relaxed environment in the field. We provide free housing and free transportation to and from the field.
We were paying with checks for a long time, but the problem we’d have at the end of the season with a migrant workforce is that they would leave town. Our payroll is a week behind, so Friday when they’d leave town the crew leader would have 20, 30 checks with these people’s names on them and they could be anywhere from North Florida to New Hampshire. … [So] we went to a prepaid debit card. It’s something that you don’t want to get into lightly, because you have to have a lot of meetings with the workers and explain things to them.
Johns: We pride ourselves on having a lot of return workers. We treat them with respect. It’s important just to respect them and make sure they’re comfortable working for you.
Calfee: I also think that it’s important to build a culture of respect on the farm. You have to respect the workers because it doesn’t make sense to grow a crop if you can’t get the people to pick it. It’s hard to recruit people to our location, it’s not right there with the Plant City operations, so we make it worth it to them. It’s come back to us in that they respect the farm. We have workers who come and tell us if they see a diseased plant — they become our scouts.
We require a lot of our workers. We require them to act like ladies and gentlemen, keep their housing clean, do a good job, and respect management. We don’t allow alcohol in the housing. If you want to drink and raise hell, you won’t fit in. It’s kind of become a self-perpetuating culture. We get a lot of the same workers coming back, so we don’t have to retrain them.
Hill: We hired a contractor at first, but we found we were doing all the work anyway. We let him go and now we have two sons who graduated from college and want to be on the farm. They both speak Spanish, which is a huge asset. It’s their job to recruit from within about a 45-minute radius of the farm for blueberry season. This will be the third season like that. We found out that the pickers would so much rather work for the farmer. The farmers are in the fields talking to them one-on-one. We make sure that they’re always paid fairly and treated with respect.
We have not had a true labor shortage. Blueberries are a little different. Fifteen years ago when the blueberry industry really got going in Central Florida, people made a lot of money on them. There weren’t a lot of blueberries out there. I think they ended up paying the workers a high rate to guarantee they’d show up, and it kind of set the standard wage. When you start at one rate, you can’t go down. So come blueberry season, we don’t have a problem. We’re implementing a deal where if someone stays the whole season, they get a bonus. We expect that will help keep the people at the end of the season when we really need them.