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Florida’s potato industry changing, moving

Southern Florida’s potato industry has seen a dramatic shift in production in recent years as urban sprawl from Miami has decimated fields around Homestead, south of the city. Homestead historically held the largest acres of potatoes in the area, much of the production going to the chipping industry, but the chip companies pulled out of the region as production dwindled to nothing, and the last crop was harvested in 2004.

“Growers decided the high cost of production, combined with low yields and competition from stored potatoes, made it impossible to stay in business,” said Mary Lamberts, University of Florida vegetable extension specialist, Miami-Dade County.

“The other factor was the housing boom, which was really taking off at that point. After not making money on their potato crops for at least a couple of years, growers were being offered lots of money for their land, which was mostly owned by the growers.”

Southwest Florida has been in the potato business for several decades, and there are about 4,000 acres in production today, mostly in Lee, Collier and Hendry counties, as well as additional acres in Okeechobee County. Growers in those counties were largely unaffected by the collapse of the Homestead industry, considering that most of the region’s potatoes are marketed for the fresh market industry, helping keep production alive without the chip companies.

Northern Florida, primarily St. Johns, Putnam and Flagler counties, is split between the chipping and fresh market industries, and comprises the bulk of Florida’s production.

“North Florida has not had any shifts in production, it’s been pretty stable,” said David Dinkins, University of Florida county extension director, St. Johns County.

“We produce anywhere from 15,000 acres to 22,000 acres each year. Last year we had about 18,000 acres, and we expect about 17,000 to 20,000 acres for the next season.”

Climate is a big factor in the stability of Florida’s potato industry, which has been in production since the 1890s. It presents an opportunity to grow potatoes during the winter when stored potato stocks from the northwest are beginning to deteriorate. South Florida growers plant between October and December and harvest January through early March, while north Florida growers plant in January and February and harvest April and May.

Growing Challenges

The climate also presents challenges for the industry, notably that the warmer weather is conducive to fungal growth, especially late blight. The disease has been creeping into the state for the past few years and many believe it will play a role in the future of the industry.

“Late blight has shown signs of changes in the last few years,” said Gene McAvoy, University of Florida extension director, Hendry County.

“There are new races that could potentially develop resistance to fungicides that could be an issue.”
Danny Johns is a fourth-generation grower in St. Johns County, and has managed Blue Sky Farms for 25 years. Like most growers, his acres have remained stable over the past few years. He is a member of the National Potato Council and former board member of the U.S. Potato Board, as well as a board member of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association and North Florida Growers Exchange. He sees many challenges to the industry, and one of the biggest is building a strategy for the long term, opening new windows to market the potatoes while not overproducing in a market where consumers may not be as eager to buy. That includes educating consumers about the industry and the varieties produced in Florida. There also is a growing interest in locally grown foods, which may help increase demand for Florida potatoes.

Those challenges are being addressed with the help of the U.S. Potato Board and National Potato Council to improve the industry in the state.

“We need to get more people involved because it gives you a better appreciation for how things work nationally and you have a better understanding of how things work on the local level,” Johns said.

There are other challenges to the industry that are making production more difficult, including labor issues, environmental regulations, food safety regulations and new fumigant rules from the EPA. But Johns also sees a new appreciation for agriculture, and like many experts, remains optimistic about the industry.

“When the economy was booming and the housing and tourism were the big economic drivers in the state, the state didn’t pay as much attention to us. Now they seem to have a better appreciation for the economic impacts of agriculture during the economic downturn.”

McAvoy added: “Potatoes are a commodity crop. People love to eat them in the United States, and I think it will remain stable. Growers found a niche (in winter production), and it’ll probably stay that way.”

Originally posted Monday, Jan. 4, 2010

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