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What does the future hold for the Florida tomato and strawberry industries? Can the Florida growers sustain their production given the emerging and projected changes in climate, regulations, and market forces? Are the regulations, markets, farm level conditions, and third-party certification systems ripe for promoting fair labor practices? Would the Florida tomato and strawberry supply chains remain resilient while balancing the interests of farmers, farm workers, consumers, and intermediaries throughout the supply chains?
These are some of the questions that the current project is trying to address. The project will help us gain a better understanding of environmental sustainability and the impacts of climate and labor policy changes on production and eventually the entire supply chain system.
The project involves a series of primary survey of industry stakeholders, and advanced climate, plant growth, and market simulation models. We are presenting our preliminary findings for feedback from industry stakeholders to help us plan future research and design our blueprint for a more sustainable and efficient product certification system.
Farm-level economic, production, and sustainability issues
One of the specific objectives of our study is to improve our understanding of how growers are conducting different farm practices (pest, water and soil management) and overall operations in the context of changing climate, environmental and labor regulations, and market forces. We want to evaluate the consequences of recently enacted labor law and trade policies on labor migration in Florida. We conducted a series of face-to-face interviews with farmers, agricultural organizations and agencies and reviewed publicly available documents and reports. Based on our preliminary analysis, we find that:
Pre-cooling of strawberries at a growers' facility in Florida. Photo by Saoli Chanda
- Florida is the second largest in USA for producing both tomato and strawberry after California, owing to its seasonal advantage of being able to produce crops during the winter, and in turn, to receive premium rate (e.g., Florida tomato price of $0.48/lb compared to California price of $0.35/lb, and Florida strawberry price of $1.40/lb compared to California price of $1.06/lb).
- Profits from tomato have gradually declined over time due to the increasing costs of labor and declining market prices. “Farmers do not have any control on the selling price of produce. Price is mostly controlled by big retailers or buyers.” In response to these economic pressures, growers are both increasing their farm size and vertically integrating their operations to maximize net return. For example, some farms now undertake pre-planting nursery operations and post-harvest packing in addition to primary production. However, "large farms have more problems and issues than small farms. Small farms do not hire H2A, do not export, and do not transport their produce long distance."
- The major portion of the Florida tomato production consists of mature green round tomatoes (69%). The growers have not taken advantage of growing other categories of tomato, e.g. grapes, cherry, camperi, heirloom, etc. The main buyers of Florida Tomato are restaurants and fast food industries. The US demand for these other categories of tomatoes is primarily met by imports from Mexico.
- Overall Florida tomato yields have declined over the years while strawberry yields have increased.
- Florida strawberries have high demand in the Canadian market. Export of Florida strawberry to Canada has increased by 14% in last four years.
- A small portion of growers attempt organic production. Crop rotation with fallow is followed to control pests in the organic fields. Protected structure is also tried in a few instances for organic tomato production. Protected agriculture does produce taller plants and higher yields than field production, however, faces challenges against warm conditions, hurricane, and lack of proper pollination. Better disease resistant varieties are needed for organic production in Florida. Interestingly, "not all buyers want organic. [For instance,] the demand for conventional strawberry is higher than organic strawberry."
- Florida climate is hot and humid, making growers rely on fumigants and pesticides during the crop production period. After the ban of methyl bromide, the costs of fumigants and pesticides have increased drastically. For tomato production, pesticides contribute (e.g., herbicide, insecticide, fumigants, and fungicide) 18% of the total production cost. Farmers are seeking alternative measures to control pests and diseases and to provide nutrients. Some farmers use crab meals for controlling fungi and supplying calcium and magnesium.
- Protected structures are feasible for high value heirlooms, cluster, organic, or other specialized tomatoes. However, they are not popular among the large tomato growers as their target market is wholesale. Also, evaporative cooling technique of greenhouse doesn’t work in Florida during summer because of high relative humidity (90%). During winter, low light intensity with shorter day length results lower tomato productivity in greenhouse in Florida as compared to other regions in the USA.
- Florida produce industry is heavily dependent on foreign workers. Hiring of H2A immigrant workers has increased significantly in last ten years. Immigrant workers are expensive to hire as compared to domestic workers. Domestic labor wage ($8.50/hour) is almost $3/hour cheaper than the immigrant labor wage ($11.24/hour), but domestic workers are in short supply. The pre-employment cost of the H2A immigrant workers can be as high as $2,000/person each year. The rising labor cost is forcing many companies to invest into building machines to harvest strawberry mechanically.
 Gillespie, R., 2017, Hurricane Irma ravaged Florida crops, Putnam says. Orlando Sentinel, Issue: Sep 18, 2017, Retrieved from: https://www.orlandosentinel.com/politics/os-hurricane-irma-florida-agriculture-20170918-story.html
 Hochmuth, G. J., 2018, Production of Greenhouse Tomatoes—Florida Greenhouse Vegetable Production Handbook, Vol.3. Univ. Fla. Coop. Ext. HS788. Retrieved from: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/cv266
 VanSickle, J., S. Smith, and E. McAvoy, 2015. “Production budget for tomatoes in southwest Florida”. Florida Cooperative Extension Service. Retrieved from: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/IR00003786/00001
 US department of labor. 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.foreignlaborcert.doleta.gov/adverse.cfm
 Roka, F. M., Simnitt, S., and Farnsworth, D. 2017. Pre-employment costs associated with H-2A agricultural workers and the effects of the ‘60-minute rule’. International Food and Agribusiness Management Review, 20(3):335-346.
Kateel G. Shetty
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Professor; Program Director, Professional Science Master's in Environmental [...]
Assefa M. Melesse
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This research was made possible by generous support from the Walmart Foundation. The findings, conclusions, and recommendations presented in this report are those of researchers alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Walmart Foundation.