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From Farm to Table - Touring Southwest Florida Farms

This post was sponsored by the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association.

Eight people lined up and posing with fruits and vegetables in their hands

In the Southwest region of Florida, around the Ft. Myers, Estero, and Immokalee areas, there is a hidden treasure trove of agricultural richness waiting to be explored. The region's subtropical climate and fertile soils provide an ideal environment for a diverse array of crops to flourish. Among the endless rows of orange groves exists a community of passionate and hardworking farmers, pickers, researchers, and scientists who are responsible for breeding, growing, harvesting, packing, and shipping our produce and the produce of Americans across the country, responsible for making Florida one of the top producers of oranges, vegetables, melons, potatoes, and more! Thanks to the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, Fresh From Florida, the American Seed Trade Association, and Florida Radishes, I recently had the incredible opportunity to tour these Florida farms. I, along with seven other food and nutrition influencers, learned about everything from seed breeding to packing and more. Here, I'll share what I learned on that trip with you so you can feel fully immersed in the experience, too.

Exploring Seed Breeding at Sakata Research Station

Our first stop on this adventure was at Sakata Research Station, where I gained a newfound appreciation for the intricate process of seed breeding. Their research manager, Nihat Gruner, educated us on how the dedicated team at Sakata invests as much as ten years in breeding seeds to enhance traits such as heat tolerance, pest resistance, flavor, and color. Witnessing firsthand the delicate art of hand-pollinating watermelons in their greenhouses was truly amazing, showcasing the meticulous care of cultivating the perfect fruits and vegetables. We saw how the team stores seeds, germinates them, inoculates them with diseases and pests, and keeps the strongest survivors to breed and collect seed, and repeat the process over and over again until they get a seed that is resilient. They do this for tomatoes, peppers, and other fruits and veggies. It was quite the experience.

Savoring Fresh From Florida Treats at Lipman Family Farms

After our enlightening visit to Sakata, we stopped at Lipman Family Farms whose owners come from five generations of farmers. They specialize in tomatoes, green beans, peppers, eggplant, and more. We toured the research space where they breed their own seeds, checked out the greenhouses where they are cross-breeding tomatoes and testing for resistance, and finished the tour in the field, where these juicy green tomatoes glistened in the sun, waiting to ripen and be picked.

Diana, a Latina woman standing with arms open in a field of green tomatoes

Then, we were treated to a delectable Fresh from Florida lunch at Lipman Family Farms, where every ingredient, from the succulent beef to the refreshing beverages, hailed from local sources. Chef Justin from Fresh From Florida didn't miss a single detail! He made us an aesthetic and refreshing mocktail with mango, papaya, and peach nectar. We started with a refreshing salad with a green goddess dressing, followed by a cold, seared beef with an unforgettable potato salad and green beans. We finished lunch with a Florida blueberry tiramisu that was to die for.

A fresh, green salad with tomatoes, corn, radish, crispy onion, and green goddess dressing served on bamboo plate ware and a tropical mocktail

Tamiami Citrus and Valencia Oranges

Fun fact: did you know that over 90% of oranges grown in Florida are destined for juice production? At Tamiami Citrus, we had the pleasure of savoring the sweetness of a freshly plucked Valencia orange, a true embodiment of Florida's citrus legacy. Ron Mahan, the VP of Tamiami Citrus, even let us take some home! He shared about the hurdles the citrus industry has faced in the last few decades, from citrus greening to natural disasters threatening their crops.

Citrus greening, also known as Huanglongbing, is a bacterial infection that affects citrus spread by the Asian citrus phyllid that has decimated citrus groves all over Florida since 2004. There is no cure for it, and over time, it weakens the tree, leading to its eventual death. The fruit is edible, but not very desirable visually to the consumer, so oranges with citrus greening end up in juice.

In recent years, Florida has experienced a few major hurricanes, and this also leads to crop losses. Prolonged flooding and wind can damage the trees. During harsh winters, temperatures dropping too low can also cause issues. One thing that stood out to me is that farming isn't for the weak! There are so many risks and yet farmers keep at it, year after year, to feed America.

Potato Picking at Troyer Brothers

Our farm to table adventure continued at Troyer Brothers, where we delved into the world of potato farming with Aaron Troyer, the President. From handpicking potatoes in the fields to witnessing the meticulous sorting process in the packing house, every step of the journey underscored the dedication and precision of Florida's agricultural workforce. We picked our own ten-pound sacks of potatoes and watched potatoes unload from the trucks to be washed, sorted, and packed. It was a very elaborate operation! After this, we called it a day and washed off the dirt to do it again tomorrow.

Diana, a brunette latina woman wearing sunglasses holding a sack of potatoes up in a field

Germinating Seeds at Mobley Plant World

The next day, we trekked north to LaBelle, where the kind folks at Mobley Plant World shared about their invaluable role in germinating seeds for farmers, providing them with ready-to-plant sprouts that form the foundation of bountiful harvests. High-quality seeds can be a bit pricey, so farmers need to make sure their investments actually sprout! Mobley Plant World germinates the seeds for farmers and sends resilient little sprouts so farmers can transplant them once they're sturdy enough for the elements. They germinated 242 million seeds last fiscal year alone and they ship everywhere from Homestead, Florida, to Ohio. Wow!

Watermelons, Bus Rides, and BBQ at Melon 1

Our final stop brought us to the impressive world of watermelon farming at Melon 1, the largest watermelon growers, packers, and shippers in the U.S., where we rode the iconic watermelon bus I kept hearing about. Did you know that a plot of land can only be used once every ten years to grow watermelons? After the watermelon season is over, the land is flatted out and prepared to graze cattle until the soil can be used again for planting. When the watermelons are flowering, the farmers bring in bees to pollinate them. Once they're done, they're collected again and they leave behind a tasty by-product -- watermelon honey! I also got to take a picture on a tractor here. We finished the tour with freshly made watermelon juice and BBQ while we had a roundtable discussion with FFVA President, Mike Joyner, Craig Frey (our knowledgeable tour guide) from UF/IFAS, Donna Watson from Fresh From Florida, and Katrina Bishop from ASTA.

A woman on a big red tractor in a watermelon field

When I originally asked my audience on Instagram what they wanted to ask the farmers during the roundtable, so many wanted to learn about how farmers work with their pickers and field workers. With legislative changes being constantly highlighted by the media, worker treatment and benefits are of great interest to me and my followers. I was pleased to learn that farmers who are part of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association source workers through the H-2A program, which allows U.S. employers who meet specific regulatory requirements to bring foreign nationals to the United States to fill temporary agricultural jobs. The visa allows workers to stay in the country for up to one year, and the employers must cover costs for transportation to the job site and home, housing, and a few other accommodations. They are required to pay a minimum of $14.77/hr and have the capacity to make as much as $25/hr based on how much they harvest. By law, these positions have to be offered locally first before employers can apply for an H-2A visa, but based on what I heard from all the farmers on the tour, locals don't want to apply to these positions. The farmers I spoke with shared that the workers who continue returning year after year become like family to them. Some have been returning for over a decade. We heard stories about how some of these workers back home have their own farms in their own country, and use the money they make here to support their families and their own businesses.

Reflections and Takeaways

As I reflect on my journey through Southwest Florida's farms, one resounding message echoes in my mind: support local farmers. By opting for Fresh from Florida produce, not only are you championing local agriculture, but you're also treating yourself to produce picked at peak freshness, ensuring a more nutritious, flavorful, and economically sustainable dining experience. If you don't see any Fresh From Florida produce in your grocery store, ask your grocer to carry some! When you can't source local produce, buy from U.S. farmers! Farmers are less than 2% of the population and help feed America and parts of the world.

I am extremely grateful to the trip sponsors, Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, Fresh From Florida, American Seed Trade Association, and Florida Radishes, for facilitating such a great learning experience and to the farmers who hosted us and treated us like part of their family. I made genuine connections with the other professionals on the trip and am honored to be able to bring it back to you all, the readers. You can see a more visual recap of the tour through a reel on my Instagram! Thanks for tuning in!

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Apr 25
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Loved your reflections and takeaways from the farm tour. The agriculture industry is so important, and we need to continue supporting our local farmers.

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