Colored bell peppers are now the No. 1 produced hydroponic greenhouse crop in Florida.

By Jina Martin

Move over, tomatoes and cucumbers. Colored bell peppers and herbs now top the list of greenhouse-produced hydroponic crops in Florida.

“The crop mix in hydroponics has changed dramatically in the last 10 years in Florida,” said Bob Hochmuth, extension agent based at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences North Florida Research and Education Center-Suwannee Valley in Live Oak. “It was almost all tomato and cucumber in the 1990s.”

In 1991, both peppers and herbs were minor greenhouse crops, with each accounting for less than an acre of production, Hochmuth said.

According to a vegetable greenhouse industry survey conducted by UF/IFAS in 2004, peppers accounted for 21 acres of production, and herbs came in second in all production at 19 acres. Cucumber and tomato production came in third and fourth, respectively, at 17 acres and 10 acres.

Reasons for change

Hochmuth said no single factor caused the change in greenhouse production. He attributes the switch to an increased demand for specialty crops, as well as the tremendous competition that greenhouse tomato and cucumber growers encounter. Fifteen years ago, greenhouse tomatoes and cucumbers were classified as specialty items more so than today, he said.

Richard Tyson, UF/IFAS extension agent in Seminole County, said the market also plays a role.

“Colored bell pepper prices have remained consistently high, resulting in more production over time,” Tyson said.

In the 1990s, most greenhouse cucumbers were marketed to Canada. The shift from cucumbers to colored peppers was a response to an unfavorable exchange rate and the fact that peppers could be marketed primarily in the United States, according to the UF/IFAS survey.

“Most hydroponic tomatoes in the ‘90s were grown in north Florida,” Tyson said.

The 1993 North American storm complex hit the East Coast in March. Tyson said this storm severely affected production in that region. It damaged greenhouses in north Florida that were not replaced. 

Tomato production has varied due to marketing challenges, as well.

The North American Free Trade Agreement and Florida growers’ antidumping suit against Canada and the settlement, both have affected greenhouse production, according to the UF/IFAS survey. 

Future production trends

Lower prices of field-grown vegetables and high startup and maintenance costs of greenhouses create a difficult competitive marketing arena, according to the UF/IFAS survey. But interest in greenhouse vegetable production persists, and new technologies have made greenhouse production more competitive, the survey says.

There is an increasing demand for specialized crops, Hochmuth said. Although  greenhouse production of tomatoes and cucumbers has decreased, he said specialty varieties of those crops could increase the production acreage.

Other speciality crops, such as baby squash, Galia melons and snack-size Beit alpha cucumbers, are being studied for greenhouse production through the university’s Horticultural Sciences Department Protected Agriculture Project in Gainesville.

Hochmuth said peppers, herbs, tomatoes and cucumbers are similar in greenhouse production, and from year to year, fluctuations among these crops are expected.

“Is any crop going to dominate the hydroponic industry? No, it’s a diversified group,” Hochmuth said. “It’s not driven by a single crop.”

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