The statewide network of 13 farmers' markets designed to help growers process, pack and ship their crops across the country and around the world set a new record last year, with gross sales of $888.8 million, up dramatically from the $703 million generated in 2012.
The growth is primarily accounted for by growing demand for food and expanding agricultural production in Florida during its long season.
But the sophisticated and state-of-the-art wholesale-based facilities, created in 1935 and operated by Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) under a state statute, has also been a major catalyst for the success and profitability of many growers - large and small.
"We have a multitude of tenants who use these facilities," said FDACS chief of state markets Danny Raulerson. "We have everything from small mom-and-pop growers all the way to large commercial operators that serve the retail industry. The whole premise of the state farmers' market system is to provide facilities for the industry to provide commercial wholesale processing and shipping."
The full-service network promotes the efficient marketing of farm products by providing information, leadership and modern facilities that help producers move crops, as well as beef and seafood, from the farm to the consumer.
The markets offer services such as produce refrigeration, truck weigh scales, packing houses, coolers, offices, farm supply facilities and produce brokerage sales, as well as produce and freight shipping companies. The 13 individual markets operate on a seasonal basis, running up to 24 hours a day during peak harvest cycles.
A key reality of the agricultural industry is that successfully growing a crop is only half of the equation, Raulerson said. It must also be efficiently marketed, sold and shipped.
The farmers' market system provides growers -- and especially smaller producers who lack the infrastructure and other resources required to be competitive with larger producers -- with affordable facilities that significantly enhance their capabilities and efficiency.
It would require a lot of time and money to independently duplicate the turnkey facilities the market system offers producers, Raulerson said.
Lease rates at each of the 13 markets are tied to prevailing local per square foot costs for commercial space. "And they are generally less expensive," Raulerson said.
Since Agriculture Commission Adam H. Putnam took office, the market locations have been steadily upgraded to meet stricter food safety standards, Raulerson said. "And that is an ongoing process. That's because Commissioner Putnam recognized the important role that the state farmers' market system plays in the state's agriculture industry. And he also realized the need to upgrade the infrastructure within the system."
Space is currently available in three Central Florida locations - Plant City in Hillsborough County, Wauchula in Hardee County and Ft. Pierce in St. Lucie County.
The Plant City facility is one of the largest in the network.
Florida Star, which produces 285 acres of tomatoes, strawberries and squash on three farms in Hillsborough County, has been a longtime tenant at the Plant City market. The company currently leases 25,000 square feet of space in three separate buildings.
They use the facility to process, pack and ship tomatoes and to ship strawberries and squash that are processed in the field.
Products are shipped up the east coast and into Canada, said packing house manager Rod
"One of the biggest advantages for us is the [optimal] location for trucking," Garrison said. "Another is the advantage that the state gives us in terms of the cost of leasing the facilities."
Because the rental rates are below locally prevailing market prices, Garrison said, Florida Star's operating costs are reduced.
Another factor for Florida Star is that the company farms leased land and therefore has elected not to make the significant capital investments required to develop its own packing and shipping facilities on-site at its three farms.
Based on his eight years of personal experience with the Plant City facility, Garrison had high praise for the job FDACS does in running the facilities.
"On a scale of one to 10, I would give them a 10," Garrison said. "They do a first-class job. And that includes the cleanliness of the facility and security. The place is just kept in excellent condition."
For more information, visit FreshFrom Florida.com.
Chief of State Markets
Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services
C/O: Aaron Keller (PR)
Packing House Manager