South Miami-Dade County farmers supply most of the nation’s winter vegetable needs. In the summer, other types of crops take center stage with the farmers, including mangos, avocados and other fruits.
Tom Rieder is a member of the Dade County Farm Bureau and he says farming is the county’s second largest industry.
“It’s not just a job, it’ a way of life,” Rieder says. “Some of them (farmers) have gone to college and some even have PhDs. But farming has become difficult because of the free trade agreement and the rising cost of rent for land.”
Rieder should know, he’s a Realtor with Rieder Realty and specializes in Florida agricultural property, working that side of the business from Orlando south.
“I’ve been doing this for a little over 40 years,” he says. “Agriculture has always been my focus. But there are some real problems that farmers are having now, including this free trade agreement with Mexico.”
Rieder says another problem is finding enough day laborers to pick the crops when they are ready. Crops are often picked by illegal immigrants because they are willing to do the work and Americans will not. However, Rieder says the anti-immigration rhetoric and tough anti-illegal immigrant laws passed in Alabama and other southern states have served to frighten away much of the migrant labor force that Florida farmers relied on.
“There are a lot of people who physically can’t go out there and pick crops for eight or 10 hours a day,” Rieder says. “The farming down here is different from the rest of the state, and with most of our fields down here, we get two crops a year.”
Those crops may be beans, tomatoes, squash or zucchini. Rieder says some small Cuban farmers are now growing sugar cane on land that ordinarily would not be used for farming, but does very well with sugar cane. Along with vegetable and fruit crops, the Redland and Homestead areas are also home to land and container nurseries.
“One of our nurseries, Costa, is probably one of the largest in the country,” Rieder says. “We have a type of soil here called marl. It holds the moisture and since it doesn’t have much rock in it, it’s easy for the farmers to root prune.”
The soil clings to the roots, which helps keep the plants and trees alive and thriving while they are in the containers. It also helps when the tree is transplanted. However, the nursery business is tied to construction.
“When construction fell off, so did the in-ground nursery business,” Rieder says. “The container nurseries are shipping all over the world. They’ve created a market.”
They advantages of farming in South Miami-Dade include access to water and land that is less susceptible to frost.
Rieder says the Farm Bureau is encouraging farmers to look at the idea of selling produce directly to the consumer.
“We’re trying to come up with a method of being able to sell direct, trying to contact restaurants and clubs,” he says. “We can provide fresh fruits at a better price.”
There are also bus tours available. Those tours take the people to packing houses and they can buy fruits and vegetables right there.
“Most produce goes to Lakeland where it is packed and then shipped back down to Miami,” Rieder says.
Farmers work closely with the Farm Bureau and the Bureau works closely with the agriculture extension offices of the University of Florida on a variety of issues, including pesticides. One of the most recent issues farmers have been alerted to is the Redbay Ambrosia Beetle, which is harmful to avocado trees.
Rieder says farmers in the region are trying to get federal funding that will allow for experimenting with new type of farming, such as hydroponics that may enable row crops to grow throughout the year.