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Southwest Florida, big producer for nation's vegetables

The region is a major player in Florida’s fresh market vegetable industry, which in 2012 ranked second to California in the total farm gate value, with $1.1 billion worth of veggies produced.

Consumer demand for fresh vegetables softened during the economic downturn, but is coming back, according to Gene McAvoy, Hendry County Extension director and a vegetable crop expert for the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Acres planted and crop diversity has grown in the region over the past 20 years. “In 1997, something like 35,000 to 38,000 acres was planted in vegetables,” McAvoy said, adding: “now it’s close to 70,000 acres. We probably have 60 different crops — everything from arugula to zucchini.”

Tomatoes are still the No. 1 crop in value, followed by watermelon and bell peppers, McAvoy said. Still, niche crops such as kale and miniature sweet peppers “are exploding” in popularity, he added.

Chuck Obern grows more than 40 kinds of vegetables and herbs at his C&B Farms in the Devil’s Garden area south of Clewiston. “We sell to distributors that sell to chain stores,” Obern said. “In general, Thanksgiving demand has been mediocre.” Obern thinks that’s because the people who buy for the stores had options other than Southwest Florida.

The Jamerson brothers grow cucumbers, eggplant, bell peppers, zucchini and yellow straight neck squash in Lehigh Acres. For growers, “the market’s been ... horrible. Once it quit raining in Georgia, everybody planted,” Mike Jamerson said. Competition from Mexico also keeps prices to Florida growers down, Jamerson said.

Does that mean consumers are paying lower prices?

“No,” Jamerson said, adding if a crop shortage emerges and the price to growers rises, so will supermarket price tags. “If the West — and that includes Mexico — gets cold or freezes out, we’ll have a good winter,” Obern said, adding: “If not, we’ll have a fistfight.”

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