Growers use fresh angles to compete
“If you get a sapodilla that is properly ripened, it is a beautiful thing,” says Dewey Steele, a retired firefighter who has grown tropical fruit in the historic Redland agricultural community southwest of Miami, Fla., for 31 years.
Longans, which grow in bunches, are harvested at Fresh Gardens in Homestead, Fla. Sometimes longans are called “dragon eyes,” because once the peel is removed, the dark seed can be seen through the tropical fruit’s translucent flesh, making it look like an eyeball.
PHOTO COURTESY OF BOB PETRUCCI, FRESH GARDENS.
Estimates vary for acreage devoted to the sapodilla – between 200 and 400 acres – with the current amount representing dramatic growth over the past five to seven years. At the moment, the approximate 10,000-acre tropical fruit industry is in a state of gridlock, primarily due to imports.
Redland, or The Redlands, is located in Miami-Dade County and is home to about 10,000 acres of thriving tropical fruit. This is the only place in the U.S. hosting freshly available treats that include the avocado, mango, and lesser-known varieties of lychees, longans and mamey sapotes.
Avocados are the biggest player, with about 7,000 acres, and mangoes are second largest, with estimates ranging from 600 to 1,000 acres. The remaining tropical mix varies in response to many of the same challenges facing growers of all stripes: demographics, competition, weather, disease and pests.
Among South Florida’s tropical fruit, the avocado is king, with more than 7,000 acres in production.
PHOTO COURTESY OF GROVE SERVICES, INC.
Florida’s tropical fruit market “is fluid,” says Jonathan Crane, tropical fruit specialist at the University of Florida’s Tropical Research and Education Center in Homestead, Fla. “The crops change because of the economy or competition and various other reasons. It’s very dynamic. It’s not static.”
Fruit awareness is crucial. Mangoes only began to gain momentum in the past 10 to 15 years. Other tropical fruits have a very specific market, and any changes there can mean big consequences for growers.
“When you have an extremely limited audience that buys the fruit, it doesn’t take a whole lot to saturate that market,” says Crane.
Compounding all of these factors is harvest time. Many of the fruits, including the lychee, are only harvested for a few weeks each year, and that time may coincide with the harvest in other countries.
The greatest advantage Florida’s tropical fruit growers have is freshness. Most growers have the ability to deliver their fruit within 24 to 48 hours in the U.S.
Louise King, president of the Tropical Fruit Growers of South Florida, harvests lychees from her grove in South Florida’s Redland area. Lychees are especially popular among Asian- Americans.
PHOTO COURTESY OF LOUISE KING.
Getting the word out
These growers average between 5 and 10 acres, and educating American eaters about their fruit is not part of the business plan. Fortunately, the Tropical Fruit Growers of South Florida has pioneered new ways to get fruit in front of people.
The organization used grant funds to promote fruit on its website, www.tropicalfruitgrowers.com. For each fruit category, growers are listed who can provide fruit directly to buyers and consumers. The site features videos via YouTube about the fruit and its history, as well as how to cook, eat and store it. There are 26 videos in all.
“People have noticed an increase in contacts,” says Louise King, president of the group and owner of Royal Grove in Redland, Fla. “We also started a newsletter to advertise different fruits to hotels and resorts, and it condenses what is in the videos.”
A favorite appears to be the mamey sapote, a fruit that is cultivated in South Florida as well as Mexico and Central America. The taste is a combination of pumpkin, sweet potato and maraschino cherries with the texture of an avocado. In some countries, it has a reputation for being an aphrodisiac.
The association is instrumental in educating chefs, restaurants, food service businesses and state agencies to promote the fruit. The website has recipes to make it easy to use the fruit the right way.
Sometimes an ancillary product will help to get the word out about a fruit crop. Gabrielle Berryer of Gaby’s Farm uses the fruit from her 2.5-acre farm to make ice cream and sorbet.
Gaby’s top sellers include Go Coconutz ice cream, Lychee Sorbet and Mamey Sapote Dearest ice cream.
“We also have one that people are beginning to know and that is the black sapote, which is called the chocolate pudding fruit,” Berryer says.
Case Study: The Lychee
The lychee is a tropical fruit that is indigenous to Asia and mainland China, where it has been popular for more than 2,000 years. It has grown well in South Florida since the early 1900s and experienced great growth there in the 1980s and 1990s.
While China has introduced the most recent pressure, Mexico and Taiwan have provided big competition for several years. Until about 10 years ago, China produced what it needed for its own population, but growers there and in other Asian countries began to export fruit at lower prices than what South Florida growers offered.
Louise King planted lychee trees in 1993. “At the time, lychees were bringing high returns because there were not imports,” says King, a retired park ranger. “Now we are lucky to get our costs.”
“The labor costs in other countries are much lower than they are here in the U.S., and so their product can come in cheaper than ours,” she says. “We have minimum wage to meet, regulations, fungicides and pesticides we can’t use. Even with transportation, their costs are lower.”
The lychee’s peak season is in June and lasts only a few weeks. Unfortunately, the season mirrors what occurs in other countries, so the product is available from several sources simultaneously. Florida growers sell harvests wholesale, retail and locally, hoping to move the sweet and aromatic lychee quickly.
“It’s not like growers want to rip anybody off,” says King. “The growers just want to be treated fairly, but they don’t want to do this for free. It seems the consumer wants to get the cheapest product they can regardless of the quality, and I think they don’t realize they need to pay a fair price. If farmers cannot make money, there won’t be any lychees on the market.”
Steele, who owns Steele’s Tropical Fruit Company in Homestead, concurs that the “tons and tons [of lychees] from China, Taiwan and Mexico have put a damper on our lychee crops. Our prices have been reduced greatly, and a lot of lychee growers have been hurt because of it.”
Tropical fruit specialist Jonathon Crane confirms the lychee crop has about 700 devoted acres today, and that it has weathered a number of boom and bust cycles, including a boom cycle that was supported by about 1,400 acres.
“The acreage is in flux, and you don’t see a lot of people putting in new acreage,” says Crane. “We do see people putting in new varieties, and they may try to have a different season, but the other problem can be the effect of the weather on flowering and fruit production.”
There is always the possibility that the lychee – which is popping up in more stores outside of specialty markets – could catch on among more American shoppers.
“Could it be up and coming? Nationally, yes, because most in the U.S. have no idea what it is and more and more typical Americans are seeing the lychee in stores,” says Crane. “In that sense, there is more of a marketplace.”
Gaby’s ice creams and sorbets are sold in 16 Whole Foods groceries in Florida and to upscale restaurants and hotels.
Bob Petrucci’s effective use of the Web has helped earn his Fresh Gardens grove a five-star rating on www.localharvest.org, a website that connects consumers with organic food in the U.S.
For five years Petrucci, known as Farmer Bob to customers and the locals, has developed a “boutique farm” in which he personally picks and packs produce for consumers across the country.
“My business is growing 100 percent a month because I have a unique product that is selling directly to people who want it,” says Petrucci, whose 5-acre Homestead, Fla., farm has about 1,000 trees. “My customers are very loyal. Anyone can do this, but if you put crap in a box they will never buy from you again.”
A worker picks avocados in a grove managed by Grove Services, Inc., which provides grove development, irrigation, management and harvesting services to all sorts of tropical fruit growers in South Florida’s Redland area.
PHOTO COURTESY OF GROVE SERVICES, INC.
Fresh Gardens receives the most interest in its longans, which are popular with Asian-Americans. Much of this product finds its way to New York’s Chinatown. A relative of the lychee, the longans are sometimes called “dragon eyes,” because once the peel is removed, one can see its dark seed through the fruit’s translucent flesh.
Mark and Mary Philcox see the need for more exposure and education firsthand. Their company, Grove Services, Inc. of Miami, manages groves for growers, and the majority of its clients grow avocados and mangoes.
“We are the stepchild of agriculture in Florida,” says Mary, a Michigan native. She and Mark bought Grove Services in 1984. “Nobody knows about us down here. We are fortunate in South Florida that we have such a melting pot and the locals know us, but we need to get out and educate.”
Philcox says she has watched growers introduce new fruit only to be discouraged when overproduction or imports squash the crop.
The pitaya, or “dragon fruit,” is one that has experienced the same growth pattern as the sapodilla. A native of hot, arid regions of South America, the pitaya is the fruit of a cactus that is aromatic and very sweet. Unfortunately, imports are giving Florida’s dragon fruit a big fight.
Growers only have a few weeks each year to harvest and ship their lychees in South Florida. Like many tropical fruits, handling lychees and educating the public about the fruit is crucial to the crop.
PHOTO COURTESY OF LOUISE KING.
Roger Washington of Dragon Fruit LLC in Homestead, Fla., counts both the sapodilla and dragon fruit among his offerings that include lychee and the “star fruit,” carambola. Washington has 10 acres and leases 5. He used to lease close to 80 acres when his clientele included more hotels and restaurants.
“The problem is we are getting the wholesale business,” Washington says. Four to six years ago, “I was working with a lot of retail, but that has faded out for specialty products. I’ve cut back because no one wants to write a contract with you to grow. Imports are killing us. They bring it in so cheap we can’t compete.”
The lychee, a tropical fruit that has been popular in China for more than 2,000 years, is also grown in South Florida. Local farmers face increasing competition from imported lychees.
PHOTO COURTESY OF LOUISE KING.
In some cases, local growers have created a problem by overgrowing.
“With the dragon fruit, everyone jumps on the bandwagon and growing without doing market research,” he says. “They plant a bunch of acreage, [and] then everyone has dragon fruit at the same time.”
“You have to sell your seed before you sow, and you have to have a good customer base,” Washington notes.
Jennifer Paire is a freelance writer based in Canton, Ga.