Florida: The Sunshine & Citrus State

I didn’t really know what to expect from Miami when I found out it was the first destination on our Global Focus Programme. My only reference point was Will Smith’s ‘Miami’ video and a Police Academy film from the 1980s.

As far as Miami Beach goes, Will Smith was pretty much spot on. We saw rollerblades within the first 10 minutes of parking up. Also a lot of fast cars, hot pants and muscles bursting out of very tight t-shirts. This was not what I expected from my Nuffield but I liked the randomness of it.

The following morning we headed for the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) in Miami-Dade County. It is a Land Grant University, one of several set up under The Morrill Act of 1862. The bill was signed by Abraham Lincoln and sets aside federal, state and county funds for the teaching of practical agriculture. The UFA runs an extension programme, aimed at reaching out to farmers and local communities about land management and food production.

Our host Teresa Olczyk, the County Extension Director for Miami Dade County, gave us an overview of Florida’s farming sector and I started to fill in the gaps Will Smith and Police Academy had left out.

Miami is the largest tropical fruit producing region in the US, and I mean every tropical fruit you can think of. Avocados, dragonfruit, mangoes, starfruit, lychee, sugar apple, guava, jackfruit, papaya…the list goes on and on. Citrus is also a huge industry with Florida growing 95% of America’s juicing oranges.

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Miami Dade produces more ornamental plants than anywhere else in the state and it’s the number one producer of foliage in the US (that’s things like indoor ferns and orchids which decorate commercial premises). It’s an industry worth $15.3billion so consider that next time you walk past a potted fern in a shopping mall.

All this agriculture in an area where the soil is basically crushed rock, with a high pH and very few nutrients. To look at it you wouldn’t think anything much could grow here. As little as a 100 years ago, these areas were covered in scrub and swamp.

The secret is water, drainage and a huge amount of fertiliser. The water table (i.e. the level of water beneath the ground) is very high, as little as one metre underground, so what you end up with is a sort of giant hydroponic system. Drainage and storage are huge issues in Florida. We met one cattle rancher who received money from the Government to take 150 hectares out of production to store water instead, under what the Americans call a ‘Conservation Easement’.

We visited the Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants (because we’re in America I won’t change the spelling of ‘center’). There are so many invasive species flooding in through the ports and across the border from Central America that the university actually has a ‘Pest of the Month’. Later in our trip we met a chap who has been writing a column for a weekly magazine about invasive species for 20 years and hasn’t run out of fresh case studies yet.

There are two which are causing enormous problems in Florida. The red bay ambrosia beetle, thought to have been imported on wood pallets from Asia, is the vector of a pathogen fungus which has wiped out 11,000 avocado trees in three years. It’s expected to spread throughout Central and South America.

The other big threat is the citrus greening bacteria, spread by an insect, which is hammering orange groves right across Florida. It was first spotted in 2005 (no one knows for sure how it got there) and has already spread throughout the entire state.
Citrus used to be the biggest crop in Florida but yields are down by 50% or even up to three quarters in some areas. It’s estimated that greening has cost $3 trillion through loss of production and jobs in the industry. From 240 million boxes (each loaded with 90lb of oranges), it’s projected just 70 million will be harvested this year.

Scientists are desperately searching for solutions. There are signs of success in a lab where, through genetic modification, DNA from a spinach plant seems to be increasing resistance. However, GM solutions are a tough sell to the consumer, even in the US.

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Orange harvest

But Florida’s citrus industry is by no means down and out. We visited Southern Gardens Citrus processing plant and there was no shortage of oranges that day. Try to imagine the biggest juicer in the world, like, a juicer the size of a power station! It processes 20,000 oranges a minute. Their storage tanks hold a million gallons of juice. And there is zero waste in the process as they make cattle feed out of the wastage.

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The only pic I managed to grab – cattle feed pellets made from orange by-product (which I placed in the cup holder in our hire car)

One thing our host said really stuck in my mind and made me realise how lazy we have become as consumers. Their Research and Development Department is looking for ways of stopping pulp from collecting at the bottom of the bottle so – get this – consumers no longer have to shake their orange juice. Really?! Have we become so desperate for convenience that we can’t even shake a bottle?

Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take photos but the scale of that place was mind-boggling.

I want to end this blog post with a truly inspirational story. We went along to a company called Plants in Design Inc which grows mainly bromeliads, an indoor ornamental plant. Their predominantly Hispanic workforce pots 20,000 a day and the company sells four million plants a year within the US and also to Canada, the Bahamas and Cayman Islands.

There I met a woman called Nixia Martinez. She came to the US illegally in 1992 fleeing conflict in El Salvador. She travelled overland, mainly by stowing away on trains and remembers one particular journey when she shared a carriage with a load of pigs. She told me the only way to take the weight of her feet was to sit on a pig’s back.

Nixia did not speak a word of English but found her way to Florida and got a job as a packer at Plants in Design for $4.75 an hour. She had studied Business Administration at university in El Salvador and knew if she was going to succeed in the US, she needed to get more education under her belt. She learnt English and enrolled on as many part-time courses as she could fit around her job.

She was good at mental arithmetic and it wasn’t long before her skills were picked up by the bosses. They offered her a day a week in the office stock taking every plant in the nursery and before long she was working full-time behind a desk. To cut a long story short, Nixia is now a co-owner of a multi-million dollar business.

When I asked her how she did it she said: “I just love my job. It was never about the money, I just love being here!”

Nixia now does charity work aimed at supporting women in business and agriculture. Oh, and somewhere along the way she found time to be a mum too. What a wonder woman.

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Nixia Martinez

So where are we now? I’m writing this blog post from a hotel room in Frankfurt. Since travelling through Florida we’ve talked politics in Washington DC and explored farms in the Czech Republic and Poland. There isn’t a huge amount of downtime in the itinerary so the blog is suffering somewhat. Hopefully I’ll find time to tell you about our meeting with Michael Horsch (the man behind the machinery). Now there’s a character!

Tonight we’re flying to Nairobi. This is where our Twitter hashtag comes into its own: #AfricaGFP

Keep an eye out for our Tweets.

In the meantime, here’s a little photo gallery of some of the amazing experiences we’ve had over the last few weeks.

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