Highlights from Florida Blue Farms
On July 9th, a collection of fellow class XI members convened at FL Blue Farms in Waldo, FL just Northeast of Gainesville. The group was hosted by Brittany Lee, Class IX alumna and manager of her family’s blueberry farm. By traditional standards the Lee’s are relatively new to agriculture. Their family was involved in commercial real estate sales and development, until the recession of 2007 forced them to rethink their long-term strategy. They had begun to reacquire some contiguous pieces of land that they had previously sold portions of, and with no future development potential in sight, they decided to look for alternative uses. After nearly settling on the now infamously glamorous lifestyle of a hay farmer, a family friend who was farming row crops in GA convinced them to partner up on a berry farm on the Lee’s land. A year or so later, right before beginning to plant their first bushes in 2010, the friend had to back out, so it left Brittany and her family, with no agricultural experience, to plant a grow a relatively high maintenance crop alone. Today, they have about 60 acres in production (managed by Michael Hill’s care taking business), and another 40 acres that they have some tough decisions about whether to replant or not.
Some of the highlights that stuck out to me from the trip are the following:
- For only having been in ag for less than 10 years, not only was Brittany well versed in the history of blueberries, cultivars, consumption trends, market challenges, environmental hurdles, etc., but she could recite it all to a group and give you both the challenges and the needs of their industry in a way that stuck with you.
- The above ties into her obvious success as a leader. While it is a family-owned business, and her title was manager, she appeared to be the clear spokeswoman for the farm industry wide. She is also currently the Executive Director of the Florida Blueberry Growers Association, and there were numerous awards on the wall of various accolades within the industry and her community. She also repeatedly mentioned picking up the phone to speak with various state and national representatives to discuss trade issues etc. All of these things can be attributed to her intimate knowledge of her industry and what it needs (her personality helps a little too I’m sure).
- She gave us a statistic that, since 2010 Florida’s blueberry production had essentially remained around 25 million pounds of production per year. In 2010, Mexico was producing 1.7 million pounds and however, last year they produced 53 million pounds. Additionally, she said the average wage of a worker harvesting berries in Mexico is $10/ day, and that the H2A labor for US harvested berries is about $11/hour. I’ve heard Michael quote about the same figures before too which is just astounding.
- Based on the above stats, trade and imports were her industries largest challenges, and one major factor in their tough decision of whether to replant their remaining 40 acres. One issue compounding the trade issue is that there are large U.S. farms who have production in Mexico which muddies the waters for regulating the “dumping” of produce on our market.
One last nugget I thought she gave us was, not only to get to know your representatives, but also to call them and ask them what you can help them with sometimes, don’t just call when you need something from them. She said that had proven to be successful for her and that they seem to appreciate and remember you for it.