Florida’s protected agriculture industry continues to expand

Originally published in Issue 10

Even though the number of protected ag operations in Florida remain fairly small in size, more large growers are weighing the benefits and options of being able to grow year-round in a variety of structures.

When you think of Florida agriculture, production in greenhouses or high tunnels probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. While the majority of vegetable crops produced in the Sunshine State are done outdoors, there is increasing interest in the use of protective structures for producing edible crops.

“We have a very diverse protected ag industry in Florida,” said Bob Hochmuth, University of Florida Multi-County Extension Agent–Vegetables and Small Farms Statewide Coordinator. “It has grown by leaps and bounds. Last year we published a 2013 survey that shows an increase of between four- and five-fold. The last survey related to protected ag was done in 2001. The majority of the increase in protected ag has occurred over the last five years. The survey also shows the diversity in terms of the types of structures, types of crops, types of production systems and types of seasons. Florida has a very diverse protected ag industry.

“Most people don’t normally think of Florida as a state for greenhouse vegetables. However, there is a lot of opportunity here. In the northern part of the state, during the winter it’s not unusual to have temperatures in the mid-20s every year and even low 20s occasionally. In the central and southern parts of the state there is less concern for freezing temperatures. However, there is still the risk of damage to outdoor crops from winter storms that come through and put everything in peril throughout the state that is being grown outside.”

Hochmuth said besides the cold winter temperatures, the other major reason that Florida growers are increasingly looking at protected vegetable culture is hard-to-grow outdoor crops.

“There are a number of crops, including colored bell peppers, European and Beit Alpha cucumbers, microgreens, specialty lettuces and cold-sensitive herbs like basil, that are really difficult to produce outdoors in Florida,” he said. “Putting these crops inside a protected culture system offers the advantage of being able to produce a higher quality product that can be marketed more consistently.”

Photos courtesy of Bob Hochmuth, University of Florida

Crop diversification

Hochmuth said tomatoes are the major crop being grown by Florida’s protected ag industry.

“Tomatoes dominated this industry segment about 20 years ago,” he said. “Along with tomatoes, cucumbers, which are mostly burpless or the mini burpless types, colored bell peppers and leafy greens, including lettuce, are now the top crops.

“The 2013 state survey indicated there has been an increase in all of these crops. There are also a lot of herbs being grown, primarily basil. Blueberries are the main fruit crop that has expanded in protected ag production. The specialty leafy greens include kale, Swiss chard, broccolini, microgreens and arugula. Those are all less acreage, but they are by no means miniscule.”

Operation size still small

Hochmuth said most of the Florida growers involved with protected agriculture have relatively small operations.

“The majority of the state’s hydroponic growers are very small, ¼-acre or less,” he said. “These operations are focusing on local direct market sales. Everything is sold retail either to restaurants, local stores, farmers markets, on-farm sales or community supported agriculture. These smaller operations instead of focusing on one or two crops, they might have 15 different offerings. When these growers go to the farmers markets they can offer a wide array of products. That is where the leafy greens in particular do very well.”

Hochmuth said Florida’s tourist industry has had an impact on the development of the protected ag segment, especially on the smaller operations.

“Many of these growers are located near or on the fringe of the larger urban areas,” he said. “The Palm Beach-Tampa area, Jacksonville, Orlando, places like that. That’s where these growers have been able to capture that segment of the market with really good prices that their clientele are willing to pay. The increase in the number of small growing operations has come in the more urbanized areas.”

Hochmuth said the cost of land in Florida has made it more difficult to start a farming operation in general. But the small acreage needed for protected ag production has made this type of operation more feasible.

“The land around these urbanized areas is very expensive,” he said. “Many of these growers either have another full career or one spouse has a full career and the other spouse is doing the growing. They may have 2 acres that is zoned for agriculture use. It doesn’t take a huge piece of property. Many of the people who have attended the University of Florida’s Starting a Successful Hydroponic Business conferences, would fit into this category. They already have a small piece of land and it is zoned appropriately. They may start doing this on a part-time basis with the vision of expanding the business, becoming successful and then beginning to do it more full time.”

Interest growing in protected ag

Hochmuth said people involved with the ornamentals industry are showing an increasing interest in protected ag for fruits and vegetables.

“There are some people coming from the landscape and/or ornamental production segments who already have structures,” he said. “The ornamentals segment has been hit hard in the last several years by the economic downturn. These people have the infrastructure, but the financial reward for ornamentals has not been there.”

A diverse group of people are attending the University of Florida’s Starting a Successful Hydroponic Business conferences.

Other people who have no connection to agriculture are also interested as they consider protected ag as a good way to enter the industry.

“These people like the concept of a local food movement and see protected ag as an opportunity for them to get started,” Hochmuth said.

Even though most of the protected ag businesses are small, Hochmuth said an increasing number of larger growers are looking at incorporating some type of structures into their operations.

“Some of largest vegetable operations in the state are beginning to evaluate protected culture as part of their operations,” he said. “In terms of numbers, we’re talking about a couple hundred small farms and maybe 15 operations of 5 acres or more.”

The other issue that Florida growers have to deal with when considering structures is the chance for severe storms.

“It is very expensive and a little riskier from a structure standpoint because of the hurricanes,” Hochmuth said. “There is also the possibility of growing out in the field for a long time during the season. Here it is a little more difficult for growers to make the investment in protected structures when considering the historical weather perspective. The growers know nine years out of 10 they’re going to be able to grow outdoors with no hurricanes. If the growers decide to go into protected culture they are going to maximize their control with a greenhouse or a high tunnel structure or an open-roof structure that can be opened and closed.”


For more: Bob Hochmuth, University of Florida, North Florida Research & Education Center-Suwannee Valley, Live Oak, FL 32060; (386) 362-1725, Ext.103; bobhoch@ufl.edu.

University of Florida Small Farms and Alternative Enterprises,

http://smallfarms.ifas.ufl.edu.

David Kuack is a freelance technical writer in Fort Worth, Texas; dkuack@gmail.com.

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