Farmers In Martin And St. Lucie Counties Work To Grow Their Fair Share Despite Season’s Agricultural Challenges
Speckled brown markings. Distinguishing stripes. Fiery red eyes. The Asian citrus psyllid looks like a mutated moth that you'd reflexively smoosh in revulsion if it landed too close to your plate at a picnic.
But to actually appreciate its unsightliness, you'd need a microscope. The psyllid is only about an eighth-of-an-inch long. But the devastation in its wake spans Martin and St. Lucie counties, and much of the state. Like a slow-motion swarm of gnat-sized locus, the psyllid has lain to waste—in just a few grow cycles—groves that extracted generations' worth of investment, sweat, frustrations and hopes.
This is the culprit behind the agricultural plague infamously known as greening. There is no known cure.
“It's part of what we've done for generations, and now it's gone,” says Wes Carlton, owner of Bull Hammock Ranch in Martin County. “It's a natural disaster, basically no different than being wiped out by a hurricane or a flood or anything else.”
Fortunately for everyone who's ever had an appetite, the family farmer remains undeterred by pestilence, disease, rough weather, market gyrations, even cumbersome regulations. Through adaptation, technological innovation, can-do know-how, and a spirit of determination, agriculture in Martin and St. Lucie counties continues with vibrancy and variety. And local farms are earning statewide acclaim for model practices.
Rick Hartman and his son, Reed Hartman, know the agricultural lands of Martin County better than many folks know their backyards. Tracing family to the area as far back as 1883, their relatives shaped the region. One relative, J.B. McDonald, was the first mayor of Stuart. Another, Ernest Ricou, was the first and only mayor of Jensen Beach. They manage Hartman Real Estate, a commercial brokerage specializing in agricultural lands, and are also owners of the Old River Cattle Company ranch.
“At one time (Martin County) had 26,000 acres of groves,” Rick Hartman says. “Now we're 2,500 acres or less, and 1,100 acres of that will go out of production after this year.”
Family farms comprise the overwhelming majority of agricultural operations, Rick Hartman says, citing 91 percent nationwide.
“Martin County is identical,” he says. “The only corporate farming is Riverland and it sold to Del Monte. Grew one crop of tomatoes and now they're trying to lease it. Corporate farming doesn't work.”
Plus, a lack of local canneries hinders the success of such operations, Rick Hartman says.
Government land, private hands
About 40 percent of western Martin County is owned by the state government, namely the South Florida Water Management District.
“The rancher and the private landowner can do a better job of managing land than the government can do,” Carlton of Bull Hammock Ranch says. “And I think we've proven that.”
Owning and leasing about 30,000 acres in both Martin and St. Lucie counties for raising beef cattle, Carlton recently received Florida's Agricultural Environmental Leadership Award for engineering a way to store and reduce nitrogen and phosphorous from 1,800 acre feet of water.
“State agencies, they just can't do this,” he says. “They can't manage all this land.”
Carlton has advised state agencies on land management methods that restore property to its natural condition and re-attract habitat. Raising cattle is a less-intensive agricultural use, helping to preserve his land's unspoiled state.
“Still, it's not [going to] do us any good to have the most pristine environment in the world,” he says. “We have to maintain a balance that protects habitat and food production.”
Bad weather isn't the only impediment to that goal, he says. Imbalanced trade agreements, which allow for importing cattle and crops grown under cheaper conditions in other countries while overtaxing U.S. exports, create strains.
“America needs to take care of America first, and then try to help other people,” he says.
Research and rescue operation
Mitch Hutchcraft is vice president of real estate for King Ranch, which owns Consolidated Citrus, the largest producer of oranges in Florida. At 70,000 acres, it's the second largest by land mass. No longer farming property in St. Lucie County, Consolidated was once the largest producer of oranges in Martin County with 9,000 active acres. Today, King Ranch is down to fewer than 500 acres of citrus.
“Our groves in Martin County were impacted by canker first,” says Hutchcraft, who also serves on the governing board of the South Florida Water Management District. “Then the storms of 2004, then greening by 2009.”
King Ranch has steadily transitioned thousands of unused acres back into production, expanding sod, corn and sugar, as well as testing out perennial peanuts and organic rice. Outside the omnipresent challenge weather presents, the operation has contended with varying consistencies of soil and logistical issues, such as difficult distances from packing houses and limited access to skilled labor.
Well respected in the industry for its management of natural resources, Hutchcraft says King Ranch regularly teams up with researchers at University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and Texas A&M University, where it's also based, to pursue cures and solutions in the battle against greening.
“We've always believed that ingenuity and determined doggedness will result in solutions to problems that we face,” Hutchcraft says. “We believe a solution will be found. The question is, when will it be found?”
Nothing to waste, plenty to share
John Long is the only potato farmer in Martin or St. Lucie counties. With nearly 30 years in operation, his Palm City-based Agri-Gators has produced tens of millions of pounds of potatoes and corn. He recently expanded his farming capabilities by renting 450 acres.
“It was wiped out by citrus canker first,” Long says of the addition, “and greening finished it off.”
Employing 25 people full-time, Agri-Gators personnel often advise other farmers on how to achieve the highest food-safety standards. In addition to the 12,500-square-foot packing facility, Agri-Gators' large cold-room storage area preserves and protects the produce. Per every 1,000 semi-truckload of potatoes, fewer than 2 percent are returned as damaged.
Such efficiency extends to the growing operation. Long outfitted his tractors with GPS, ensuring sub-inch accuracy in digging crop rows. Advanced water-control structures maximize his management of irrigation and drainage. Every aspect within his control is vital, especially because the most impactful element—weather—isn't.
“Most farmers' biggest issues are weather-related,” Long says. “As far as potatoes go, it's been tougher on me. For 10 days it just about rained every day. We lost a lot of the root system and never got back growing right. We've had a pretty trying fall. But, that's what happens.”
In 2013, John Long was named Florida Farmer of the Year by Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo. But he might be even more proud of receiving a Hope Award from House of Hope for honoring an agricultural practice that traces back to biblical times—gleaning. He sets aside a large portion of his harvest for local food banks, donating hundreds of thousands of pounds of potatoes and corn over the years.
Such is the farmer's life—cultivating every grain of soil, managing every drop of water, at the mercy of every drought, flood and pest imaginable—just to produce enough crops to give to the needy, feed the many and make the margins to repeat everything all over again come next planting season.