the north face greenland jacket Family Farms survives
At O Family Farms, it just a few yards from the vine to the cash register.
Produce doesn get much more local, or fresher, than that.
At the 160 acre farm about 7 miles east of Interstate 75 on State Road 64, shoppers can pick their strawberries and tomatoes straight from the vine. They can gather their own lettuce and spinach leaves from the hydroponically grown plants. There’s a glass enclosed bee hive where they can search for the queen and there’s a small food counter where they can order a hotdog or a piece of homemade shortcake with homegrown strawberries.
It the lighthearted, public side to an often difficult business.
Brothers Tom and Stephen O have watched plenty of other local family farms fold over the years as regulations rise and competition from Mexico increases.
They still here, but that doesn mean it been easy.
I had to tell somebody a line of work to go into, it would not be farming, Stephen O said. much as we loved it and we loved it for years, it gotten so expensive with the liabilities and the labor issues and the laws we have to follow. a 24/7 business for them, whether they’re tending the crops in the daytime or loading up trucks or fending off freezing weather at night. It never really stops, said Stephen O’Brien. When they’re not in the field, there are still books that need to be done. They were at the farm on Christmas Day, and they’ll be there again next Christmas. Their crops’ needs don’t stop for the holidays, so they can’t either.
Their produce is available locally at the Detwiler Farm Market stores, but the bulk of it is trucked to large chain and club stores throughout the country, Tom O said.
The O’Briens farm roughly 800 acres of crops from Plant City south to Bradenton. They own about half of it and they lease the other half.
40 years of change
The brothers started in agriculture as produce brokers with their father about 40 years ago.
Today, their company, C Fruit Vegetable Co., grows, packs and ships produce on the commercial side and operates the retail store with you pick fields on their land along State Road 64. Stephen O’Brien’s son, Kevin, has taken on a role in the business, too, bringing a third generation into the company.
The industry as a whole and the land on State Road 64 itself look quite a bit different than when they first set up shop there about eight years ago.
When they first moved out there, there was still plenty of land to farm in Lakewood Ranch, the master planned community owned and under development by Schroeder Manatee Ranch Inc., Tom O said. That dwindled, though, as homes have crept closer to their property and they’ve had to seek out other places to farm.
house you see in Lakewood Ranch, we probably farmed, Tom O said. the houses kept moving, they put us on another piece of land and now, Schroeder Manatee, they hardly have any land left for growing.”
Trade and regulation woes
Over the years, the O also have watched their profits struggle against their expenses. such as strawberries and tomatoes still need to be harvested by hand, and paying those hands adds up. Regulations need to be followed and their 250 employees need to be paid a fair wage, which drives up the family operating costs. Meanwhile, competition from Mexico reduces the dollars coming into the cash register.
Much of the trouble comes from the North American Fair Trade Agreement, Tom O said. The pact, which is being renegotiated, cut tariffs between the United States, Mexico and Canada in the mid 1990s. Trade between the three countries grew, but the agreement also left players like the O competing with international farms that get to bypass safety regulations and that can pay workers just a few dollars per day.
The family operation pays its employees by how much they harvest, which usually means upwards of $12 an hour and at times even $20, depending on how quickly they work, Tom O said. His workers can make more in an hour than some of their counterparts south of the border can make in a full day.
don have to spend a lot of money, Tom O said of his rivals. not a level playing field for us.”
The national median pay in May 2016 for agricultural workers, which includes people who tend to crops and livestock, was $10.83 per hour, or $22,540 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Family farm hurdles
But the hurdles for family farms go beyond the competition at the border, said Fritz Roka, an associate professor who specializes in agriculture economics at the University of Florida Southwest Research and Education Center. Keeping up with food safety and labor regulations can be particularly costly for a small farm that doesn have the same kind of infrastructure and resources that larger organizations do, he said. Meanwhile, the minimum wage is rising along with the cost of seeds, fertilizer, pesticides and fuel.
Technology on both the record keeping side and in the fields eventually could alleviate some of the strain, Roka said. There’s no machine on the market yet that picks strawberries and tomatoes, but harvesting crops such as beans has been mechanized. If something similar comes off the drawing board and into the field for strawberries, it could be a game changer for expense strapped businesses.
“Those kinds of technology advantages really help mitigate some of the things that are hurting the productivity of our grower,” Roka said. problem is that those advances would be available to their competitors, too, he said.
There’s not just one solution to leveling the playing field, but a part of it could also come from the consumers themselves, Roka said. There’s a growing push, especially in the tomato industry, for crops to be harvested in a way that the public, the retailers and even buyers deem socially acceptable, and there is a value to that. Just as some consumers are willing to pay more for organically grown produce, agriculture could find a niche with products that are labor and environment friendly.
“It all a matter of what the consumer wants and what they willing to pay for,” he said. these small and medium sized farms also have a unique opportunity to reach their communities through education, and that something the O have pursued, said Crystal Snodgrass, the county extension director at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension Office in Manatee County.
In addition to the pick fields, the O also host school field trips and group tours. There’s a small fee to help with a few tour expenses, but that kind of outreach isn’t really about revenue. For them, it’s more about the education.
When they walk the fields and talk to the farmers, consumers are more likely to be willing to spend a little more for a tomato that comes off a local vine, Snodgrass said.