The deep freeze that struck the Southeast destroyed much of Florida’s winter vegetables, brought the state’s packinghouses to a halt and knocked many of Florida’s growers out of one of their key marketing windows.

Doug Ohlemeier
Eastern Editor

But the January and February downtime also allowed many shippers to update their operations.

Jim Monteith, sales manager for Pacific Collier Fresh Co., Immokalee, Fla., said packinghouses weren’t waiting for the summer off season to do annual projects such as paint and equipment repairs. With packing lines idled, companies put crews to work on seasonal repairs.

“This whole town should be cranking with product, but it is at a standstill,” he said. “We have had some minor frosts in years past, but nothing the size we experienced this year.”

In Belle Glade, the hub of the state’s sweet corn production, packinghouses should have been buzzing with the sounds of forklifts moving pallets of corn crates into hydrocoolers, but they were eerily quiet.

Owners of Belle Glade, Fla.-based S. M. Jones & Co. Inc. had already made seasonal improvements to the packinghouse and there was little for workers to do.

Labor lag

John Alger, vice president and operating manager of Alger Farms Inc., a Homestead grower-shipper who co-owns S.M. Jones & Co., said the packinghouse and farming operations went into a lockdown mode and had to put many of its workers on unemployment until a planned return to production in late March.

Since Jan. 11, 10 packinghouse employees and 70 fieldworkers have been out of work.

“It’s rough out there,” Alger said.

“We don’t have the funds and the income. When there’s no income coming in, you have to really button down in today’s environment. Credit is tight and you have to watch your pennies.”

Repair work

R.C. Hatton Inc., Pahokee, Fla., which grows and packs beans and corn through Performance Packaging, South Bay, Fla., was fortunate to escape some of the freeze damage.

For a couple of weeks when Hatton didn’t have any volume to run the plant, the operation performed some yearly maintenance, such as resurfacing the floor, that it would have normally done later in the summer.

Roger Hatton, R.C. Hatton’s president, said through it all, his growers didn’t lay off any of their workers.

Hatton shifted workers from the packinghouse to the fields, handpicking beans that normally would be machine-picked.
“We look at people maybe a little differently than some non-farming corporations do,” Hatton said.

“People make you money and don’t cost you too much. Our laborers at every level are important. I learned 50 years ago that I can drive only one tractor.”

While sales desks had to scramble to find product to fill shortages during Florida’s lucrative winter window, growers should have product this spring.

That should bring better sounds coming out of south Florida packinghouses.

E-mail dohlemeier@thepacker.com

Did you have freeze-induced downtime? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.