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Florida Grower Has Potato Business In His Blood

Farming isn’t just what Florida potato grower Alan Jones does. He was born to it and it’s in his blood. At age 38, like many other farmers, he’s growing not only potatoes but a number of other crops as well. Unlike a lot of other growers, however, he’s unfazed by all the growth in Florida and sees it as beneficial to his business. After all, he said, the more people who live in the area, the more need there will be for the food he and other growers produce.

Jones’ father and brother were farmers, so he grew up in the business.

“They started farming up in north Florida, in the Hastings area, back in the late 1950s,” Jones said. “They had a very successful operation there, growing greens, cabbage, potatoes and sweet corn.”

Jones’ older brother and a cousin got involved in the business, and in the mid-1980s, the two brothers divided the farm between their two sons.

But Alan Jones’ father wasn’t through with farming. He and his son moved downstate to Manatee County and started a farm there.

“We came down here with our equipment and a potato chip contract and started renting land,” Jones said. “We came to Manatee County because there’s an earlier season here, and started from scratch.”

Jones would farm in the spring to make money for college, and then go back to school at the University of Florida in the summer and fall.

Then the farm manager left for another position, so Jones stepped in and began farming full time. With several different parcels of land in Charlotte County, two counties away, it was a full-time job.

“That’s tough land down there,” Jones said. “We had all kinds of drainage issues, and there’s a lot of caprock, where the rock comes right to the top of the ground and messes up your irrigation.”

As a result of that and other factors, Jones and his father in 1990 decided to consolidate their operation so it was entirely in Manatee County.

By then, the father and son team had bought their first piece of land in the county. Today, Jones owns a total of 2,500 acres in the county. It’s an impressive feat, considering the overall price of land in south-central Florida. A few years ago, Jones bought his father out and now is the sole owner of the business, although his father still is involved in the farm in an advisory capacity.

“We just kept reinvesting in ourselves,” Jones said. “Now, we feel like we have some of the best land in the county.”

About 1,300 acres are in potatoes, 900 of them chip stock and the rest table stock. On the other acreage, he grows snap beans and other vegetables, cattle and 200 acres of citrus. One reason he has done so well, Jones said, is the timing of the growing season in south-central Florida. When he started harvesting potatoes during the first week of February, he was harvesting the first potatoes of the season anywhere in the United States.

On the chip stock side of his business, Jones grows mostly the Atlantic variety.

“It’s a hardy plant, and it’s worked out the best for us,” he said. “We have total defects of less than 3 percent and the specific gravity well on up around 17 percent to 18 percent.”

On the table stock side, Jones sticks with tried and true varieties.

“We’ve got some reds, some whites and Yukon Gold,” he said. “We’re doing primarily washed bulk and mini-tote types of potatoes.”

Of those, Jones said, Yukon Gold isn’t the biggest producer.

“The money is pretty good, but we don’t get much tonnage per acre on it,” he said. “There are a lot of yellow-fleshed potatoes on the market right now that are better producers, but Yukon Gold has the trademark.”

Unlike many growers in Florida and elsewhere, Jones is strong on land rights.

“If I want to farm, I should be able to farm,” he said. “If I want to develop, I should be able to do that. This country is founded on the idea that people have rights.”

This philosophy doesn’t mean that Jones isn’t feeling pressure from development. In fact, he has several new residential neighbors right across the street from his acreage in Parrish.

“I’m feeling a tremendous amount of pressure,” he said. “There are a lot of places getting ready to explode in the next three years. And I’m all for it. I’m not one to build a wall to keep people out.”

Jones sees the influx of people as beneficial to his business.

“Having all those people there should help me,” he said. “If I can produce what they need to eat right here, that should benefit both them and me.”

Since his operation doesn’t generate a lot of runoff or odor that neighbors will find offensive, Jones doesn’t anticipate any complaints about the way he does business.

“Almost everything we grow is harvested mechanically,” he said. “The green beans are packaged at another location here in the county, and the potatoes are washed and packed at yet another one of my locations.”

Jones’ wife handles the books and does the payroll for the farm. With three small children and 12 year-round employees to look after, plus seasonal help, it’s a considerable task.

“We have very loyal year-round employees that we’ve had for a long time,” Jones said. “We try to utilize a profit-sharing program and don’t have much turnover.”

During the next few years, Jones doesn’t see his overall farm operation changing much.

“I expect to stay pretty much right where I am,” he said. “As far as price is concerned, in my opinion there needs to be a fixed increase in the contract price to handle cost of living increases instead of having to renegotiate every few years. But on the other side, if fuel goes back to 50 cents a gallon and fertilizer goes back to $100 dollars a ton, prices might come back down. But you should have a factor in there that would allow for changes like that.”

The biggest issue Jones sees with the farm in the next few years involves water.

“Water is going to be a battleground,” he said. “In fact, it already is.”

Will Jones’ farm pass down to another generation? He said it’s too soon to tell.

“My sons are 4 and 6, and my little girl is 8 years old,” he said. “Right now, we just come out to the farm and have fun.”

His biggest personal challenge in the next few years will be raising his kids.

“There are always challenges in business,” he said. “But my biggest challenge in the near future is to raise good, upstanding children.”

Originally posted Saturday, Apr. 7, 2007

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