Florida Growers Learn How To Win Over Local Chefs

Finding new markets is a goal for most specialty crop producers. Chef David Bearl encourages growers to look no further than their own community to cultivate new relationships and buyers. That was the message he brought to attendees of the 2015 Florida Ag Expo.

In particular, Bearl said many restaurants are looking to source local produce to feature in their dishes. But, what are chefs looking for in locally grown items? Freshness of the produce is critical to chefs and often is impaired by logistical challenges of getting the produce harvested, chilled, and transported in a timely manner.

2015 Florida Ag Expo cooking demo duo
2015 Florida Ag Expo cooking demo duo

“Freshness to me is one of the biggest obstacles,” he said. “You can have live, freshly harvested food at 7:30 a.m., but by 4:00 p.m. it can be dead, limp food. So understanding postharvest handling is very important.”

Know The Restaurants
Another key first step in marketing local produce to restaurants is getting to know them. Bearl suggested growers map it out and see how many restaurants are in proximity to the farm and measure how far away they are.

He also suggested getting involved with chefs’ organizations like the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association and the American Culinary Federation. By getting involved, growers can learn what chefs who are buying local are looking for and then determine if those needs can be met.

On the flip side, restaurants want to know the grower’s story. Bearl suggests growers develop point-of-sale materials that tell the farm’s story.

“Have a picture of the farm,” he said. “Have a picture of your family. People want stories of who you are and what you do. That will help you sell to the restaurant.”

Food Safety Tops Concerns
Bearl said that food safety has to be a top priority for everyone involved, and good chefs are extremely mindful of good food safety practices.

“Do you have a third party audit?” he asked. “That is a tough one, because the audits are expensive. But, anytime someone gets sick and dies from eating a cantaloupe, we all are in trouble. Chefs want safe food. And, they want food that is handled properly.”

Special thanks to DuPont Crop Protection for sponsoring special coverage of the Florida Ag Expo.

Alternative Crops Gaining More Attention In Florida

Hops plant

As more traditional crops in Florida are challenged by pests and diseases, increasing costs, and foreign competition, growers are looking for alternatives to diversify their operations. During the 2015 Florida Ag Expo, Dr. Zhanao Deng, a Professor of Ornamental Plant Breeding and Genetics, presented his research regarding the potential of growing pomegranates, blackberries, and hops in the state.

Deng told attendees that pomegranates have several market advantages. They have grown in popularity due to their health benefits. And, there is very little production of the fruit in the Southeast. California is the major growing region with 30,000 acres.

Researchers are testing different varieties to see which ones might fit Florida’s climate and soils best. The biggest challenge to overcome will be the crop’s susceptibility to a number of diseases in the state’s subtropical environment. Leaf spots and blights can cause severe early defoliation, fruit rot, drop, and mummification.

The good news is there are many varieties of the ancient crop, some of which, researchers hope will be more suitable to Florida’s climate and therefore a viable commercial venture in the future.

Finding the best varieties with low chilling requirements (100 to 300 hours) will be key to future success. The majority of commercial blackberry varieties were developed by the University of Arkansas and have high chilling requirements. New breeding lines are being developed for Florida’s warmer winters. “Blackberries are becoming popular and profitable,” Deng said. “With proper cultivars, growers can harvest and sell the fruit in May and June and/or November and December. This will provide growers with a new market.”

A number of U-Pick farms already are having success growing the crop in the state.

The popularity of microbreweries is creating demand for the crop because brewmasters want to promote the “buy local” angle of their beers.

The biggest challenges to producing hops in Florida are related to climate and daylight requirements. Most are grown in Oregon and Washington where daylight hours are longer.

Deng said research is the early stages to determine the viability of growing hops in the state.

Special thanks to DuPont Crop Protection for sponsoring special coverage of the Florida Ag Expo.

Florida Growers Take Time To Talk Through Tough Topics

Labor and food safety loomed large during the grower panel at the 10th annual Florida Ag Expo held at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Balm. Moderated by FFVA President Mike Stuart, participants included Leonard Batti, Taylor Farms; Jay Sizemore, JayMar Produce; Elvie Engle, Del Monte; and Tres McQuag, Astin Farms.

“Labor has become the top conversation,” Engle said. “Where do you get it? Where do you get enough of it? Where do you find good, reliable labor?”

According the panelists, the lack of reliable labor and the competition for the domestic labor that is available is driving more growers to the H-2A program.

McQuag says Astin Farms has been using the program for a number of years, and while it is expensive and cumbersome, it is a program he likes.

“It is a very good and secure feeling knowing you will have a workforce with H-2A,” he said. “I also like that you have an eager group of young men there to work who are glad to be there.”

Sizemore said he has avoided the program thus far and gave an example of a grower friend who had used H-2A with success for years, but because of some technicality ended up dealing with a large lawsuit against his farm.

“My biggest fear with H-2A going forward is getting crossways with the Labor Department and ending up with a lawsuit,” Sizemore said.
With the Food Safety Modernization Act rules right around the corner, there is a new emphasis on the subject.

Batti noted on the fresh-cut side, individual customer demands are driving the process as much, if not more than government regulations.
“The demands from foodservice and fast food buyers are very intensive requirements for food safety and rigorous audits,” he said. “For the most part, we gladly do this because our goal is the same to ensure the safety of our food to consumers.”

“The one thing that bothers me with all the things we are doing for food safety, these outbreaks are still happening,” Engle said. “We need to figure out why. We are spending tons of money on hair nets and washing hands, which I agree with, but it is not fixing the problem. That is where the research needs to get involved to help to figure out how these things occur and move.”

Special thanks to DuPont Crop Protection for sponsoring special coverage of the Florida Ag Expo.

Pomp And Plenty Of Circumstance At Florida Ag Expo

2015 Florida Ag Expo outdoor landscape
2015 Florida Ag Expo outdoor landscape

If you asked Florida growers to sum up the state of the current industry in just a few words, one most certainly to get blurted out would be “labor.” This issue, among a few others, was top of mind for participants of a grower panel during last week’s 2015 Florida Ag Expo at the UF/IFAS Gulf Coast Research and Education Center. The annual one-day event was celebrating its 10th year.

The panel featured Tres McQuag of Astin Farms, Elvie Engle of Del Monte, Jay Sizemore of Jaymar Produce, and Leonard Batti of Taylor Farms. Panel moderator, Mike Stuart, FFVA, kicked off the session by asking panelists: “What keeps you up at night?” Across the board, the availability of farm labor has been causing the most concern. “It’s a struggle to get labor and a struggle to get them to do what you want (and need),” Engle said.

Sizemore has been shying away from the H-2A guestworker program ever since a colleague got burned with regulation litigation. “My biggest fear going forward in farming is getting crossways with the federal government over guest workers,” he said. “You’re not going to win a lawsuit with the federal government. There’s no doubt we need some kind of guestworker program, but it needs to be more grower friendly.”

Probably one of the most noteworthy exchanges came from the audience when a well-meaning member asked the panel why not hire college students to pick produce since they are always looking to earn extra spending money. After similar responses (“we’ve tried that to no avail”) from several of the panelists, as well as the moderator, longtime local berry grower Carl Grooms of Fancy Farms spoke up. “We’re not here to pay someone’s gas money. We’re trying to run a business.” That concise statement put a cap on the discussion.

Stay tuned for extended coverage featuring more highlights from this panel and several other session standouts. In the meantime, take a virtual tour by scrolling through a gallery of images snapped at the milestone Florida Ag Expo.