Heat, shirt-drenching humidity and soil that need to be coerced to achieve hospitable growing conditions don’t make farming an easy task for any grower, conventional or otherwise.

It’s an even tougher challenge for organic farmers – but one that is being faced by more and more growers coming to terms with sustainable agriculture as they work diligently to bring pesticide-free products to market in a cost effective manner. The 2007 Census of Agriculture showed that Florida had 280 farms representing 9,301 acres that self reported using organic practices.

To Lisa Lochridge, a spokesperson for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Maitland, it’s an unavoidable fact of life in an environment in which some estimates show a new pest or disease is introduced monthly.

“ Florida is a very tough environment in which to grow organically, just because of the climate and the sheer preponderance of pests and disease that thrive in our climate,” she says. “That makes it a challenge for anyone wanting to get into that area – but, that said, growers are responding to what they see as market demand.”

Indeed they are, as conventional growers allocatesssssssss more of their overall acreage to organics. Seen by some as ongoing research-and-development projects, others expect to make a swift profit because of market conditions.
That’s the case with Florida Pacific Farms. The Dover-based company complements 265 acres of conventionally-grown strawberries and 8.5 acres of blueberries with 15 acres of organic blueberries and a half acre of experimental blackberry varietals. Owner John Stickles is excited about his year-and-a-half old plants being harvested for the first time in April and May.

“Out of a lot of the berry categories you pick, the blueberries would be more forgiving of a commodity,” says Stickles, noting that disease pressures are less. “The type of the plant being up in the air means you have a little more air movement through it.”

Part of Stickles’ learning curve involves determining which varietals handle Florida best. He currently has 45 percent in Emerald, which has shown more resistance to leaf rust and leaf spot. He has another 45 percent in Jewel, which he says is more susceptible to rust and other foliar diseases.

Florida Pacific likely will pick into June, he says, to take advantage of a market window that benefits from an extended month of harvest. Conventional growth berries competition from Georgia, the Carolinas and California may be stiff, but his organic product will fetch roughly $10 more per pound, he estimates.

“You will not see price erosion in the organic product because the competition in volume isn’t there yet,” he says. “The demand exceeds supply availability.”

Still Seeking Cost Effectiveness

It has been a bit more of a struggle for strawberry grower Gary Wishnatzki. The owner of Plant City-based Wishnatzki Farms devotes 15 acres to organics, six of which are under cover. Although many of the details of his ‘semi-hydroponic’ system are proprietary, his operation that has been certified organic since 2005 faces distinct hurdles.

Nematodes have been an issue as have weeds since methyl bromide is a no-no. And fertility remains a problem, one made more vexing during the wintertime.

“Things break down slow,” he says. “You can’t use synthetic nitrogen and the fertilizer had to break down naturally. If you see your plants look hungry, you feed them but in organic farming, if you see them hungry, it’s too late.”

An unusually cold winter with several days in the low 20’s in central Florida didn’t help matters. Exacerbating that was lower market prices because of increased competition from central Mexico and California’s Driscoll Strawberry Associates, Watsonville. Still, his farms continue to supply Publix Supermarkets, although a flat dipped from $30 a year ago to under $20.

“The secret I truly believe is figuring out how to get costs down, that is what is going to drive demand,” he says. “We’re not there yet.”

That’s the assessment as well of officials at Pacific Tomato Growers. Chief executive officer Billy Heller, Jr. is shepherding the 90-plus-year-old Palmetto-based company as it explores organics. It has increased its organic acreage in Florida and Georgia from 16 percent to 20 percent in the past year, comparing micro-climates and how both its organic and conventional crops respond.

Sweet grape tomatoes are the main emphasis of the company, although it has experimented with organic green bell peppers and squash. The peppers have not proven cost effective and squash isn’t disease resistant.

“That’s where this thing, if people believe organic crops is the way of the future, if we choose to see our state and region and nation, that’s a totally fallacious statement,” Heller says. “We cannot consider it a commodity. It’s grown and produced as a specialty product.”

He doesn’t buy into the change of lifestyle argument put forth by some organic proponents.

“It’s a choice because of my customers,” he says. “They ask us for this as part of their market basket. We are good at what we do conventionally and good at what we do organically but by and large it’s another leg of the stool of farming. We are in business to stay in business.”

A Continued Shift to Sustainability

For Dr. Danielle Treadwell at the University of Florida’s Institute for Food and Agricultural Sciences, Gainesville, the economic component is only part of what she terms the three legs of sustainability. The state extension specialist’s focus on organic and sustainable vegetable production includes developing cost-effective fertilization programs that minimize risk. Her nutrient management programs take into account soil, water and air across a spectrum of multidisciplinary efforts to develop germ plasma cultivars appropriate for organic farming of strawberries, peaches, blueberries and other crops.

Tillage and weed control are concerns for organic farmers, but the potential for organic success is extremely high, she says.

“I don’t think the organic growers experience any significant challenges different than traditional growers,” she says. “To me, the biggest challenge for any grower in the state is finding a market. The market is challenged, I think–it’s the constant need to be proactive in our marketing strategy and stay ahead of populist trends.”

She pointed to a recently completed survey of 850 small Florida farms. It showed that while a third are conventional, another third is organic and the rest are conventional but with some organic components.

“Many of these small farmers are taking advantage of the direct market which is very successful,” she says. “The consumer demand for local goods is just through the roof and that’s working in the small farmers’ favor right now.”

On a larger scale, she will be part of an IFAS-sponsored conference in August at the Osceola Park Conference Center. An organic sustainability tract will be one of five presented by the 100 speakers scheduled.

Taking a Different Approach

Other programs statewide devoted to organic growth include workshops April 22 in Homestead and April 23 in Immokalee instructing on farming practices, regulations and financial incentives. They are offered by Florida Organic Growers, the Gainesville-based not-for-profit that has pushed for a move to organics since 1989.

Executive director Marty Mesh spoke of the intellectual and philosophical shift required of farmers transitioning to organics, but he also focused on the importance of soil improvement through compost and cover crops.

“I think long-term those growers will find the investment of the organic matter and the soils (results in) a positive contribution to the success of their transition,” he says. “It’s a systems approach as opposed to input substitution. Let’s talk insects, let’s talk fertility and how do I make a system that really works together?”

Other strategies include rotating crops and leaving some land fallow, simple traditional management practices that Mesh says result in healthier soil. But he understands that with organic produce showing up from Honduras and Mexico, it’s important to differentiate what Florida has to offer.
Meetings are planned with Florida retailers so that if a natural blueberry yogurt producer is seeking raw materials, a transitional grower would be a natural fit.

“I’d rather support a Florida grower than a Mexican grower or a California grower,” Mesh says. “I think if we can ratchet up the industry, I can go to Publix or Whole Foods and say I want to make the commitment.”

Soil, Growth Go Together

A commitment to organic farming is being made by growers big and small. Among them is Winter Haven-based SunnyRidge Farms, which grows Emerald, Jewel and Primadonna blueberries on 14 acres in Avon Park. SunnyRidge is a grower, shipper and marketer with farms and partnerships from Argentina to British Columbia, but this will be its first foray into organics.

Dr. John Duval, its technical services manager, says the market demand should make it work as SunnyRidge sells to Publix, Costco and Wal-Mart. Its blueberries benefit from improved soil, he says.

“Organic blueberries are a really good fit,” he says. “We amended the soil with pine bark and a combination of mulch and natural, slow release organic fertilizer.”

A focus on soil health is the main predictor of success also for Rick Martinez, the founder and chief executive officer of Tampa-based Sweetwater Organic Community Farm. The nonprofit 6-acre farm along the Hillsborough River supplies 300 families with a weekly supply of 65 varieties of organic produce.

“Soil biology is the foundation of organic farming,” he says. “When you have healthy soil, crops tend to be resistant to the pests and problems you have and the rest you can address with input. That’s the big fundamental change is changing how you think about your soil management as opposed to crop management.”