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It's the 'worst of times' for area farmers

MANATEE — Local farmers are fixing old pickup trucks, rather than buying new ones, running their tractors only when necessary, and generally tightening their belts in the face of a severe recession.

Ralph Garrison, president of the Manatee County Farm Bureau and owner of Suncoast Nursery in East Manatee, said the nursery business has hit rock bottom.

“Nurseries are closing. They practically can’t give away their inventory or their property at an auction. It’s the worst of times to be in the nursery business,” said the veteran of 36 years, who wholesales to clients in all 50 states except Arizona.

Tuesday, he showed a visitor through 20 acres of shade houses, several of them empty or partially empty. Many of his plants would typically go to office buildings nationwide, businesses that have cut expenses by cutting out landscaping or decorative plants.

“Why grow plants you can’t sell?” Garrison said.

Reggie Brown, executive director of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, said the salmonella scare of 2008 helped lead to the worst tomato season on record, and the business has yet to fully recover.

“Combine that with tightening of credit, it has the potential to significantly reduce the size of the tomato industry in this state. The tomato industry is typically a half billion dollar industry, but this past season it was under $400 million,” Brown said.

Liz Compton, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Agriculture, said farmers are a resilient lot who typically hold their own through adversity, but the tomato industry has been shrinking.

In 2005, there were 42,000 acres of Florida land planted in tomatoes, but in 2008 that had fallen to 31,500, she said.

Farmers say they also have been hurt by the high cost of doing business, particularly fertilizer.

“The value of this year’s crop was 20 percent under the historic average and the cost was up 20 to 25 percent. Plastics and fumigant materials have reached unheard levels. It’s costing us $1,000 an acre to fumigate. We had some acreage we didn’t even pick this year,” Brown said.

Gary Reeder, a fourth-generation Manatee County resident who grows tomatoes in the northeast corner of the county, said “everything is costing way more than it did a couple of years ago. Our problem is we are still getting the price for a box of tomatoes that we got 20 or 30 years ago. It all depends on the market.”

Reeder, like many other farmers, is now preparing his land for the next crop in August, and wondering what the future will bring.

With the tough recession, demand for tomatoes is about 65 to 70 percent of normal, he said.

Reeder also worries that with an El Nino year, there will be more rain, and with that comes more disease problems with the crop.

The 300 acres he plans to plant this year, all of which will be sold to West Coast Tomato, is down slightly from last year.

Bruce Shackelford of Four Star Farms, which grows crops in Myakka City and Parrish, said land prices are falling and credit is tightening up. A farmer since 1975, he said he doesn’t remember another time when so many parts of the economy were having difficulty.

“It makes everyone fearful,” Shackelford said. He believes that farmers with plenty of equity in their operations who have practiced conservative business practices will pull through.

“The biggest problem is that the costs are out of our hands,” he said.

Fran Becker, a Bradenton resident who serves as president of the board of directors of Florida Citrus Mutual, said his industry faces a “real mixed bag.”

The industry began building inventory after being battered by the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons, but demand for orange juice has been falling because of cost.

“Demand was suffering simply due to higher prices with the short crop years,” Becker said.

Now, growers are wondering how much the recession will hurt their business. They also worry about the greening disease that could devastate Florida citrus.

Unlike row crops that are planted every year, or several times a year, a citrus tree is a long-term investment. Some growers are holding off on planting new trees while they try to get a sense of the economy, Becker said.

Reggie Brown of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange said for his growers, the economy already amounts to a depression.

But he added, “We tend to be pretty tenacious, for awhile. We’re perpetually optimistic. Hopefully next year we will have a better season.”