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In recent years, foreign and domestic cuisine has highlighted specialty foods, exotic and miniaturized, in an ever expanding quest to lure the restaurant patron with tempting and attractive dishes. The demand has pushed prices for these items to all time highs making production of these gourmet treats highly profitable. As a cushion to market vagaries, independent farmer/ranchers may respond by diversifying income strategies and maximize total production capabilities by growing a lucrative specialty crop. One rancher/grower's adaptation to new demands of the Japanese market is documented here from an interview on his ranch in St. Lucie County, Florida. The rancher interviewed headed a family based ranching operation covering a total of 65,000 acres.
The History of the Ranch
The rancher's initial 40,000 acres was purchased by his father in 1937 at $.75 per acre. His father was a criminal lawyer and had health problems. His doctor said that he would die without more fresh air and exercise, so he set about to purchase this unimproved land. The father died recently at the age of 89. Initially he was looking for land to plant but when a Cedar Rapids man offered to let him pay for the land over time he felt 40,000 acres was "too much land to plant" and he started cattle ranching.
The land lies in west St. Lucie County in Florida and is alternating grassy fields, which were wetlands during the early period of settlement. Oak hammocks on higher ground interrupt the fields. Indians and early settlers first lived in the hammocks, thinning trees and planting citrus amongst the oaks. Indians traveled by canoe at the time. The rancher found the remains of a dugout canoe on the property as a little boy. He has since built one himself in the likeness of the canoe remains.
The ranch has administrative offices, assorted structures for cattle and citrus production, an airstrip, cattle ranch, and groves. There are homesteads for the rancher, each of his three sons (one lives in the grandfather's house), his sister, the cowboys and managers and one black family. The African-American tractor drivers live in town except for the one family. That man asked to live on the property since he felt the town environment was a bad place to raise children. The rancher brought a mobile home to the property for his housing. Two friends of the rancher have set up hunt camps/retreats in two separate hammocks at the rancher's invitation. Greenhouses and beehives are also on the property. Reservoirs have been built for irrigation and wells supply water for domestic use except for drinking water, which is bought in town. The rancher also owns property in other counties.
The ranch operated as a partnership 1948-1963. It operates as a family owned corporation now. 2 percent of the land earns the ranch 40 percent of its income in citrus. The total ranch consists of 65,000 acres, 2,000 of which are citrus.
St. Lucie County has areas of land, which are underlain with limestone that make citrus growing advantageous. The ranch happens to be on one such area.
RANCHING: One hundred cows are born a day during the birthing season. The rancher will raise 7000 calves in one year. Three thousand (75%) castrated male cattle are sold to feed lots. They sell 30 percent of the female cows for breeding.
The pasture soil is enriched naturally by the cows and from the nitrogen fixing plants, demodium and clover. The ranch is almost self-sufficient. They buy no feed, raise their own breeding stock (buy no bulls nor use artificial insemination), allow natural selection to take place on the herds (cows are not assisted with births), and the stock feeds 12 months a year on pasture--natural breeding and natural feeding.
The ranch has 500 breeding bulls, or one bull for every 20 cows. The bulls are kept in separate pastures until breeding season when they are placed with the cows. One bull may breed as many of 60% of the herd, but it is hard to determine which one is doing all the work.
Other Fauna: Two coyotes have been found and killed on the property. They are a menace to stock. The deer population is plentiful. The rancher may allow hunters at his invitation but he restricts hunting by all in certain areas. He has seen the growth of some fine buck, 6 to 7 points, using this restriction. Wild turkeys are likewise hunted only by invitation. Bob cat and panther are on the ranch. Buzzards abound. Sand hill cranes with red head top and gray feathers live here. Also, the ranch will be part of an attempt to re-establish whooping cranes in the area.
Cattle ranching is extensive agriculture and almost self sufficient on this ranch because the rancher allows natural selection to take place. He depends neither on purchased fodder, stud service, artificial insemination, nor assisted birthing of calves, yet constant maintenance is required of the citrus. Groves must be irrigated, sprayed, fertilized, limed and weeded. Although it is intensive, the return is worth the venture.
The ranchers decision to enter the citrus market was based upon stabilizing his cattle market in off years with another prime crop. This coincided with the introduction of the nursery stock of a new, improved and highly attractive deep red grapefruit, star ruby, onto the local market. Japanese were interested in purchasing the fruit as were domestic restaurants. Japan protects its own orange production by limiting orange imports, but the grapefruit market was wide open.
The star ruby is a pretty fruit that has an external blush, making it attractive in the market. Internally, it is scarlet, much darker than the more common ruby red variety. It is also seedless. After reading about the new stock in the agricultural press, the rancher invested in planting the trees. His ranch land was ideal for growing citrus being rich in calcium and phosphorus, which is especially good for growing grapefruit.
Since his initial success with the star ruby fruit, he has expanded his deep red grapefruit production to include two new varieties, flame and ray ruby, which have improved properties of faster growth and being less sensitive to herbicides. The ray ruby grows faster and is not as sensitive to herbicides as the star ruby. The flame has better taste. Both of these varieties came about by a natural process from the tree of a dark red (ruby red) grapefruit. Sour rootstock is used. Bud wood of the desired strain is grafted onto sour rootstock. Seeds are less reliable to use of desired variety because cross-pollination changes the genetic make-up of offspring. An exact duplicate of parent trees is achieved by grafting.
Flame varieties require 2 years to fruit after planting. Star ruby trees are smaller and more difficult to grow. They take 3-4 years to produce. The star ruby began with experiments with atomic radiation on seeds. The rancher believes the USDA maybe did most of the work. After the first plant was established, all other cuttings were taken from that one (how seedless grapefruit reproduce). The first bud wood in Florida was smuggled from a Texas grower and many lawsuits resulted. The rancher bought his first plants from the state when everything had settled.
The star ruby is marketable because of its taste, lack of seeds, and slow deterioration rate. The star ruby tastes as good a grapefruit. The white seedy Duncan variety has a good memory among old time Floridians, but white marsh seedless grapefruit are what people will eat of the white varieties.
The liabilities of star ruby production are its greater sensitivity than others to herbicides, which are sprayed around the base of the trees to prevent weeds from choking out the trees growth. The star ruby takes one year longer to get into production. It needs more "babying" also. The rancher is happy to do the extra work for the price they bring.
The rancher does not sell directly to the Japanese but he sells his crop to packing houses that sell to them. He says that the Japanese are good business people. They don't buy junk. Japanese representatives are at the packing plants in Fort Pierce to check on the fruit to make sure that it is clean and of good quality.
In June, the rancher looks at the number and quality of fruit then he forms a contract with the packing house to sell the crop for an October or December harvest. Not all the fruit is sold at once. By selling part of the crop at a time, the rancher has more control over the market and prices.
In preparing to plant, land is cleared and burned in preparation for planting. Reservoirs are built to collect rainwater. Pumps and canals were put in for drainage. The rancher rents equipment so that he has no large capital inventory of machinery.
The land slopes one foot per mile and is otherwise flat. Because of this the rancher is able to stage the water. Rainwater is collected in man made reservoirs. Water flows from the reservoir to ditches between the rows of citrus trees. Tree roots absorb the water through capillary action of the mounded sand. After watering, water is pumped back into the reservoir creating a self sufficient system of water recycling. The irrigation system pumps one million gallons of water per hour into the reservoir. Irrigation provides water and cold protection. Most growers water with micro jet, which provides each tree with its own sprinkler.
Reservoirs and canals are stocked with fish as a means of mosquito control because the fish eat the mosquito larvae. The rancher reported that mosquitoes were a detriment to the cattle before this stocking took place.
Four to six foot fences were necessary along the bordering canals to protect the citrus crop from deer.
To conserve on land, the rancher planted trees at 200 per acre, doubling land capacity. The rancher came up with the idea to plant twice as many since the same fertilizer, spray and water will need to be used whether you plant 100 or 200. As the trees get crowded, he will remove every other one, but in the mean time as young trees, he can harvest twice as many. The rancher has his own greenhouse nursery on the property now to grow his young trees. He planted 22,000 trees in one year. Only 5 were lost. The variety was the flame grapefruit grown from the rancher's own nursery.
Yearly maintenance requires irrigation, keeping the grass down with herbicides, fertilizing, adding lime, and spraying. New trees must be protected from freezing weather with a wrap.
Herbicides are put on the ground below the trees to keep down weeds that could cover and choke out trees. 100 trees per acre are planted.
The rancher used to say that he grew cattle because he loved it and grew citrus for the money, but not anymore. He loves to see the citrus grow. Fruit production is very interesting with so many new developments in the field. And the citrus brings a profit. He has planted 2 percent of his land in citrus and that 2 percent brings in 40 percent of his profits.
The common pink or ruby red grapefruit that so many Americans are familiar with in the supermarkets pales in comparison to the star ruby variety. The star ruby excels in deepness of color and taste. Ruby red brings the grower $6.00 per 90 pound box and the star ruby brings $11.00 to $12.00 per box. The star ruby crop and returns from other citrus, Hamlin and tangelo oranges, helped him to realize a million dollar profit in 1988. That same year, citrus was the number one crop in Florida accounting for 30.3 percent of all farm crops for a total sale of 1.76 million (Jackson 1989). Florida with 4.7 billion in crop sales was second to California that year.
According to the USDA (1999) Florida Grapefruit sales (colored seedless varieties) were 135 million in sales for the 1998-99 year, considerably more than white seedless and other varieties. Citrus fruit in general created1.6 billion (down from 1989) in sales for the same time period, colored seedless grapefruit sales being only 8% of total citrus sales but considerably more profitable than other varieties or oranges. From this data we can see that the farmers gamble on the new citrus being more profitable has paid off.
What does the rancher see for the future of deep red grapefruit production? He sees more demand. "Only a small part of the world is able to grow good grapefruit. As people's diets change, their tastes change. They want something light". If Japan continues its trend to depend upon foreign grapefruit and loosens its restrictions of orange imports the future of all citrus products looks bright.
When asked if he thought that at today's land prices, a new farmer could set up citrus production and survive, he replied, "Good planted groves are currently selling for $15,000 an acre. Good citrus land is selling for $2000 per acre. There is a large up front cost to get into citrus but it must make money because people are still going into citrus production."
From this account of a rancher/grower in Florida we can see how the planting of produce is market driven. Because of the vagaries of weather, commodities markets, and price fluctuations, farmers who are most likely to succeed are those who have mixed strategies. This rancher has evolved a system of managing his property, which conserves the land and resources as much as possible. He doubles the density of grapefruit seedlings to reduce water and fertilizer use. He relies on the slope of the land to water his trees causing the least evaporation and he recycles the water for the next time.
In cattle ranching, he relies on natural selection to produce the strongest cattle for the Florida climate. By rotating pastures he is able to save on feed costs and eliminate fertilizer use.
Finally, he has a great respect for the land through his game management practices and by forming a corporation with his sons to see the tradition continue. Specialty citrus and cattle ranching--a compatible strategy.
Interview with farmer/rancher. NOV 1989. 8:30am to 11:30am. St. Lucie County, Florida.
Jackson, Jerry. 1989. "Florida No. 2 in farm-crop sales." Orlando Sentinel. P. C1 and C6. 05 October 1989.
USDA September 1999. Citrus Fruits 1999 Summary Fr-Nt 3-1 (99). Pp. 4 and 11. http://usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/
For more information see http://orchid-isle.com/business/adams/index~1.htm
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