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Publication #IPM-201

Unique Challenges for Florida Growers in Tomato and Pepper Production1

G. McAvoy and M. Ozores-Hampton2

“The fact that Florida is the number one producer of fresh market pepper and tomato in the United States is quite remarkable given the unique challenges to growing vegetables in Florida and is a testimony to the resourcefulness and skill of the growers engaged in producing these crops.”

Unique Challenges for Florida Growers

  • Weather Events (freezes, rainfall, and hurricanes)

  • Poor Soils (organic matter and pH)

  • Pest and Disease Pressure (insects, diseases nematodes, and weeds)

  • Labor

  • Development and Urban sprawl

  • Regulations

Weather Events

While Florida's normally mild semitropical climate may seem ideal for the cultivation of warm season crops like peppers and tomatoes, producers have to deal with wide variations in temperature ranging from blazing hot to freezing cold. High temperatures can inhibit pollination and fruit set while all parts of extreme southern peninsular Florida can experience an occasional frost and more rarely a devastating freeze that can inflict millions of dollars in crop loss in a few short hours.

Figure 1. 

Overview of a tomato field after a freeze event in January 2010 in south Florida


Credit:

Monica Ozores-Hampton


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Florida receives bountiful precipitation; however, the majority of the annual rainfall (50 to 70 inches in the major production areas) occurs during the wet season, which typically extends from May–June through mid-October. During the long dry season, which coincides with the major part of the production cycle, it is not uncommon to go weeks and sometimes longer without a drop of rain. Given this reality and Florida’s sandy soils, it is impossible to successfully produce vegetables without irrigation.

Figure 2. 

Florida is the lightning capital of the United States. Lightning can blast crops, leaving circlar patterns, and poses a formidable risk to field workers.


Credit:

Thomas Wright


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Throughout the dry winter months, cold fronts passing across the state can result in uncharacteristic heavy rainfall as cold, dry Arctic air collides with moist, tropical air masses. Tropical storms can drop as much as 5 – 10 inches (or more) of rainfall in a few hours or days (Figure 2, 3). Thus, growers may spend nearly as much time and money pumping water off their fields as they do irrigating their crops.

Figure 3. 

Flooding following heavy rains


Credit:

Gene McAvoy


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

This environment necessitates that growers provide for exquisite drainage by planting on raised beds and maintaining elaborate canal systems to remove excess water from the land. Intense rains can also result in leaching of fertilizer, depriving crops of needed nutrients as well as resulting in non-point source pollution of ground water in some instances.

During the winter months, much of peninsular Florida can be blanketed by dense protracted fogs and heavy night dews resulting from the interaction of cooler terrestrial air and warmer air masses moving in from the surrounding waters. These events can occur on a nearly daily basis for extended period of time in some seasons and may endure until 9 or 10 AM before eventually dissipating. These events cause ideal conditions for the development of disease, which can be difficult to control until environmental conditions ameliorate.

Florida's geographical location makes it extremely vulnerable to direct hits from tropical weather systems and hurricanes originating in the Atlantic and/or Gulf of Mexico. Looking at a map of hurricane strikes over the last 100 years, it becomes readily apparent that no area of the state has been spared and most areas suffer a direct hit every couple of decades. These violent events can leave plantings in a shambles resulting in enormous losses in a brief period of time (Figure 4, 5 ).

Figure 4. 

Hurricane Wilma damage and flooding


Credit:

Monica Ozores-Hampton


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Figure 5. 

Hurricane wind whipped tomato plants


Credit:

Gene McAvoy


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Poor Soils

Most of the soils used to produce peppers and tomatoes in Florida are some sort of sand ranging from coarse “ball bearing” sands to fine “sugar” sands (Figure 6). In other tomato producing regions, most notably in the Homestead area, what passes for soil is basically pulverized limestone from ancient coral reefs. In either case, Florida's soil is merely a media to hold plants that provides little in terms of nutrients beyond what the grower supplies.

Figure 6. 

Overview of Florida sandy soils


Credit:

Monica Ozores-Hampton


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Low Organic Matter Content

As a result of the high average temperature and abundant annual rainfall, the soil organic matter (SOM) content of many agricultural soils is extremely low, often a fraction of a percent at best. Due to both low SOM and the porous nature of these sands, Florida's soils have very low water holding and cation exchange capacity. Some soils can literally go from a flood to a drought condition in less than two weeks if rain does not occur or irrigation is not provided.

Poor Fertility

Low native fertility and low cation exchange capacity dictate that growers use high rates of fertilizer to supply all the essential nutrients that their crops require to produce. This situation makes leaching, especially under high rainfall or poor irrigation management, a distinct possibility, a factor that can contribute to non-point source nutrient loading of surface water adversely affecting environmentally sensitive areas nearby. In some instances on some of Florida's uncoated sands, the exchange capacity is so low because there is nothing to bind minerals to what are basically miniature glass beads so that even some nutrients such as phosphorus that are typically considered to be immobile elements become mobile moving with ground water.

pH Problems

The pH of Florida soils can vary widely as well, ranging from very acid as low as 4.2 on native Pine Flatwoods fine sands to quite alkaline as high as 7.8 – 8 on the Rockdale soils and marls of Miami-Dade. Since much of the irrigation water used in agriculture is extracted from the limestone underlying the state, the pH of many originally acid soils can increase dramatically over time moving from an acidic to an alkaline condition in response to sustained irrigation, which can add as the equivalent of a ton of lime per acre on a yearly basis. These extremes of pH can induce either nutrient toxicities at the lower end of the pH scale or nutrient deficiencies as pH increases above 7 that a successful grower must learn to anticipate, diagnose, and rectify.

Pest and Disease Pressure

Given the state's humid subtropical environment and warm average annual temperatures, insect, weed and disease pressure is constant and can be intense at times. Unlike other more temperate pepper and tomato producing areas, most of the state's growing regions do not experience hard freezes that so effectively reduce pest pressure. As a result, pest control costs for Florida growers surpass those encountered in many other growing regions of the United States.

Per acre production costs for pepper and tomato in Florida often exceed $16,000 per acre in large part due to the high cost of pest control.

Exotic and Invasive Species

Florida's environment is also favorable for the introduction, survival, and establishment of exotic pests entering the state from other countries. It is estimated that at least one new introduced pest or disease enters the state each year.

In 1997, Tomato yellow leaf curl virus (TYLCV) infected whiteflies were blown into the state by hurricane winds most likely from the Dominican Republic (Figure 7).

In 2005, chilli thrips were detected in the state and since have been found in a least 16 counties across Florida. This pest has the potential to become a major pest of peppers and other vegetables and ornamental plants.

Most recently (2010), groundnut ringspot virus has been detected on tomatoes in South Florida.

Figure 7. 

A tomato plant infected with TYLCV, left, stands next to a disease-resistant plant developed by University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agriculture Science (UF/IFAS). Once infected with the disease, tomato plants no longer grow normally, and no longer produce marketable fruit.


Credit:

Ernest Hiebert


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Labor

Successful tomato and pepper production depends on an adequate supply of labor to plant, nurture, harvest and pack the crop. Florida's vegetable industry is heavily reliant on migrant labor. Unfortunately many of these laborers enter the U.S. illegally and have attracted the attention and ire of many citizens and legislators who seek to curb the flow of undocumented workers into the country.

Increased security at the border and competition for labor from the construction, fast food, hotel, landscape, and other industries could negatively impact the supply of labor and force wage increases.

Figure 8. 

Tomato harvesting crew in Immokalee, FL.


Credit:

Monica Ozores-Hampton


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Development and Urban Sprawl

Rapid development has gobbled up much of the prime agricultural land previously used for tomato and pepper production in eastern Palm Beach, Homestead and more recently in southwest and west central Florida.

Development has also raised real estate prices to levels which prohibit the purchase of land for agricultural use in most areas of the state. In some areas land sells for in excess of $100,000 per acre and it is almost impossible to find any land for less than $8 - 10,000 an acre suited for crop production anywhere in south Florida (Figure 9).

Although development has slowed somewhat and land prices are falling in recent years due to the economic downturn, historical trends indicate this is temporary at best.

As housing encroaches on agricultural areas, neighbors may object to pesticide spraying, the movement of heavy equipment on roadways, and other operations associated with agriculture.

Figure 9. 

Rapid development and increasing land values throughout Florida are prohibitive for agricultural development.


Credit:

Jeff HansPetersen


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Regulatory Issues

Successfully negotiating the regulatory environment can be a daunting task. The acronyms for the rules and the names of the agencies that administer them present a veritable alphabet soup for the typical grower.

  • BMP: Best Management Practices

  • FWC: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Committee

  • FDACS: Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services

  • FDEP: Florida Department of Environmental Protection

  • EPA: US Environmental Protection Agency

  • SWFWMD: Southwest Florida Water Management District

  • WPS: Worker Protection Standard

Layered on top of legislative regulations may be buyer-mandated programs such as food safety or fair wage programs that have begun to emerge in recent years. In 2010, President Obama signed into law the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). This legislation will affect every aspect of the U.S. food system, from farmers to manufacturers to importers and places significant responsibilities on farmers and food processors to prevent contamination, a departure from past food safety regulations which relied on government inspectors to catch tainted food after the fact. All of these programs cost money to implement and in most cases do not provide any increased return.

Surveys of vegetable producers in southwest Florida indicate that growers spend from 6% to over 30% of their time and energy trying to comply with and maintain documentation required by various regulations.

Offshore Competition

Competition from offshore producers has also emerged as a factor affecting vegetable producers in Florida. Beginning with the North America Free Trade Initiative in the early 1990s production of many crops has emerged in many lower cost producing areas, most notably Mexico. In addition to lower cost of land and labor, many of the areas currently in competition with Florida's growers are not bound by the regulatory tangle that vegetable producers in Florida must negotiate.

Imports have made up a large portion of U.S. fresh tomato consumption for many years. Imported tomatoes account for about one-third of U.S. tomato consumption, up from one-fifth in the early 1990s. U.S. net imports of fresh tomatoes now approach 2.4 billion pounds per annum. Canada and Mexico, U.S. trading partners under NAFTA, are the main sources and the Netherlands follows as the third largest source. After implementation of NAFTA in 1994, some tariffs were phased out in the five years between 1994 and 1998, while others were eliminated over a ten-year period ending in 2003.

Although Mexico was a substantial partner in trade prior to NAFTA, the total value of imports from Mexico increased 138 percent between 1993 and 2004. According to USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS), Mexico supplied 85 percent of U.S. fresh tomato imports, valued at $750 million. U.S. fresh tomato imports from Canada substantially increased as well. From 1989, the year the Canadian-U.S. Trade Agreement (CUSTA) was implemented, to 2004, fresh tomato imports from Canada into the United States rose 889 percent, from $2.8 million in 1989 to $257 million in 2004. In 2004, Mexico and Canada combined accounted for roughly 95 percent of the $1 billion U.S. fresh tomato import market.

Because U.S. field-grown fresh tomato production is seasonal, Mexico is the predominant importer to the United States in the spring, fall and winter, with Canada providing the bulk of imports during summer months.

Mexico currently contributes about two thirds of the volume of fresh vegetables to the U.S. compared to all other countries combined, accounting for 74% of the 4.3 billion worth of fresh vegetables that the U.S. imports. Mexico ships approximately 1.1 million tons a year of fresh tomato to the US with a value of 1.1 billion dollars. Mexican tomatoes are estimated to account for half the tomatoes consumed in the United States.

Florida and Mexico historically compete for the U.S. winter and early spring market. Imports from Mexico tend to peak in the winter when southern Florida is the predominant U.S. producer. Florida tomatoes then dominate the market during the spring as Mexican production seasonally declines. Mexico remains the primary source of U.S. tomato imports and has rebuilt market share lost earlier this decade by shifting more heavily into greenhouse/hydroponic products

Over the past decade, greenhouse/hydroponic products have made significant inroads into the U.S. fresh-tomato retail market. Imports from Canada's hothouse tomato industry peaked in 2005, but have weakened with rising competition from Mexico. Mexico has invested heavily in protected culture of vegetables, resulting in a larger share of the U.S. import market. Mexico now accounts for 74 percent of the U.S. import market for greenhouse tomatoes, while Canada's share has been reduced to about 13 percent.

On March 4, 2013 the U.S. Department of Commerce entered into an agreement with producers and exporters in Mexico to suspend the antidumping investigation on fresh tomatoes from Mexico averting a trade war that threatened to engulf the two countries. The initial investigation was initiated on April 25, 1996. The U.S. Department of Commerce first issued a preliminary determination of dumping and then announced a suspension agreement with principal Mexican producers/exporters at that time. The suspension has since been renegotiated with new agreements signed in 2002, 2008 and again in 2013.

The agreement raises the minimum sales price for Mexican tomatoes in the United States, strengthens compliance and enforcement, and increases the types of tomatoes governed by the bilateral pact to four from one. The agreement raises reference prices substantially, in some cases more than double the current reference price for certain products.

In response to many of the factors discussed above, pepper and tomato production in Florida is now primarily controlled by a relatively small number of large corporate agribusinesses that have the ability to spread risk between multiple production centers and the resources to endure the adversity of a poor market year or years.

Footnotes

1.

This document is IPM-201, one of a series of the Entomology and Nematology Department, UF/IFAS Extension. Original publication date August 2007. Revised August 2014. Visit the EDIS website at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu.

2.

G. McAvoy, county extension director and regional vegetable extension agent; M. Ozores-Hampton, assistant professor, Southwest Florida REC—Immokalee; UF/IFAS Extension, Gainesville, FL 32611.


The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county's UF/IFAS Extension office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.