Agri Leader

New crops fuel future of Florida agriculture

Between November and May each year, Florida produces about 300 agricultural commodities that are sold across the U.S. and in more than 120 countries around the world.

Since 2004, the global distribution network pioneered by Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) under its innovative "Fresh from Florida" marketing and branding campaign has included 10,000 worldwide retail outlets. As a result, new crops introduced into Florida have flourished.

For example, blueberry production totaled $11.9 million in 2000. By 2012, it had grown to $69.1 million. In 2000, the state's strawberry crop totaled $167.6 million. In 2012, sales were $366 million. Between 2000 and 2011, watermelon production more than doubled, from $45.4 million to $111.9 million.

At the start of 2014, several new crops represent the latest wave of new opportunities for growers. And because of its optimal growing conditions for most of the year, central Florida is uniquely poised to take advantage of those opportunities.

"When you look at central Florida now, there are numerous crops that might be called 'niche crops,'" said Dan Sleep, supervisor and senior analyst in the division of marketing and development at FDACS. "They're difficult to track, because many of them are in the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars in value. And most of the crops USDA normally reports on are much larger than that."

That said, however, Sleep noted, there are currently a number of emerging crops that could significantly expand Florida's range of agricultural production. And that potential is heightened by a growing populations in the U.S. and the rest of the world, where increasing affluence is also spiking demand for fresh agricultural products.

Among the most promising new crops now being developed in Florida are peaches.

"Peaches represent an interesting crop and there are now numerous folks around the state that are starting to explore those," said Sleep, adding that University of Florida/IFAS has developed new cultivars optimized for growth across central Florida and beyond. "Today, peaches are probably where blueberries were in the early 1990s. Back then, blueberries in Florida were worth $1 million or $2 million. Last year, blueberries were almost a $70 million crop and they now represent a huge industry. So if you look at how that particular crop grew, you can begin to understand what the growth pattern for peaches could be."

Sleep estimated there are about 1,200 acres of peaches now being grown in Florida. Over the next decade, production could grow to 5,000 to 7,000 acres or more, he said. "And that's just based on current demand and what our production is in a particular window, which is April and May," he said.

A grower can produce about 5,000 to 10,000 pounds of peaches per acre, at current prices of about $3 per pound, so each 1,000 acres of production represents about $22.5 million in sales revenue, Sleep said.

As a result, several hundred acres of citrus groves have already been converted to peach production, Sleep said.

Meanwhile, based on several years of foundational done by UF, led by researcher William Castle, Florida has developed a fledgling pomegranate industry.

"We've been watching the potential for pomegranate production since about 2010," Sleep said. "That's when we started to get some of our first insights, from University of Florida and other places, as to what could start happening. UF has also done some good research into the cultivars.

And that's really where it starts with any crop."

Cindy Weinstein, owner of Green Sea Farms in Zolfo Springs, worked by Castle during his early UF research to determine the viability of pomegranate production in Florida.

Today, she has a thriving four-acre operation in Hardee County that offers 100 varieties of pomegranate starter trees to fruit producers across Florida and around the world. She also sells to homeowners.

Before switching to pomegranates, Green Sea Farms grew just one acre of hydroponic U-pick vegetables. Based on her collaboration with UF. Weinstein immediately saw new opportunity.

"Pomegranates are more of a specialty crop," she said. "And we only have a total of 20 acres of land. So we couldn't compete with any large commercial grower of things like oranges or peaches. So, we were looking for something that was not as popular yet and also something that meant we didn't have to compete with the big guys."

Green Sea Farms is now expanding its operations. "We have more varieties coming in all the time," said Weinstein, who is also president of the Florida Pomegranate Association (FPA) launched by UF's Castle. "This spring, we hope to plant another 20 varieties. We're currently working on finding the perfect pomegranate that will grow and thrive in different parts of Florida."

FPA also won a USDA specialty crop block grant this year to foster pomegranate production in Florida. The organization will host a grower conference in February at UF's Gulf Coast research and Education Center.

Other new crops now generating growing interest are olives and Caribbean-based fruits and vegetables that will be more in demand as Florida's Hispanic population continues to grow.