The Final Harvest

Developers are hungrily eyeing Dade's agricultural heartland, where farmers are a dwindling breed

It was a contentious crowd that filed into the Redland Middle School auditorium late in the afternoon of November 13, 1997. By 6:00 p.m. as many as 100 people had arrived for a hearing before Community Council 14. The council is one of fifteen boards created a year and a half ago in unincorporated Dade County to allow communities to decide their own zoning issues.

The hearings are often lively forums during which neighbors spar over competing visions of the future, and perhaps nowhere is this more true than when Council 14 holds session. Encompassing the largest jurisdiction of the boards, Council 14's territory covers much of the South Dade area commonly known as the Redland.

Named for the coloring of the lime-rich marl deposits in its soil, the Redland stretches roughly as far north as Coral Reef Drive, south to Homestead, west to the Everglades, and east to South Dixie Highway. Dotted with farms and old houses, its roads frequently clogged by slow-moving tractors, the Redland remains relatively untouched by the racy city life of Miami to the north.

Celebrating a centennial of farming this year, the Redland is the last bastion of agriculture in a county where farmland once predominated. South Florida boasts the only subtropical growing region in the continental United States. Once known as the nation's winter vegetable garden and a premier tropical fruit source, in the past several decades Dade's agriculture has undergone a shift and is now dominated by small ornamental plant and tree farmers, often referred to by locals as "gentleman farmers."

But with just 83,000 acres of farmland left in South Dade (and as many as 10,000 of those acres are designated as federal reserves or water management areas), the locale has also earned the rank of the nation's sixth-most threatened agricultural region, according to American Farmland Trust, an agriculture preservation group based in Washington, D.C.

Perhaps the greatest peril to agriculture is the piecemeal loss of farmland to residential development. It was this very issue that brought many to Council 14's zoning hearing that Thursday. A sure sign the meeting would have its share of controversy was the presence of Tom Kirby of the Dade County Farm Bureau milling among the crowd.

Kirby, a 49-year-old former county bureaucrat, is the third generation in his family to live in South Dade. Though not a farmer himself (as a young man he left home to work as an airline steward for several years), he serves as executive and government affairs director for the local farm bureau chapter. His mission, he says, is one of passionate advocacy for the Dade County agriculturist. His detractors, however, portray him as a shill for wealthy landowners, a man who has left a trail of angry press releases, anonymous newsletters, and personal attacks in his wake.

The application before Council 14 that November evening came from Nature's Way, a horticultural company that was hoping to change the zoning of one of its holdings from agricultural to residential -- specifically, to convert a 45-acre plant nursery into a 196-home tract.

Nature's Way had enlisted big guns to shepherd the plan through the zoning process. A well-connected lobbyist had already sent letters to local businesses urging them to support the proposal. And a high-priced zoning attorney had come to the hearing to argue on behalf of the change. The property, he said, sits within the Urban Development Boundary, where planners foresee higher density. (Much of the Redland lies outside the UDB; zoning there can be altered only at a hearing held by the county commission every two years.)

But neighbors of the property and members of a local zoning activist group opposed the development. They complained that rezoning the nursery would add to the pressure to convert even more farmland to housing. A greater density of houses would invite urban sprawl, they warned, as they aired a laundry list of concerns about the redevelopment's impact on property values, local services, public safety, and school crowding.

One of the opponents was farmer Charles Burr, who owns the well-known Burr's Berry Farm and cultivates fourteen acres of strawberry fields near the site. "My dad was a farmer back during the turn of the century," Burr told the board members. "I know I can't change it. I just hate to see what's happening. [Housing] will cover up the Redland."

When Kirby himself rose, he spoke in a voice both smooth and authoritative. "There are those of you on the council who might not know necessarily what the Dade County Farm Bureau is," he began. "We are a nonprofit membership organization. We have nearly 4000 members, and that does not include their families."

There he stood, on behalf of an agency whose sole purpose, he took care to note, is to protect agriculture and the farmer; but Kirby had come to speak in support of the housing development. In fact, he explained, the Dade County Farm Bureau board unanimously backed Nature's Way. "The Farm Bureau, of course, finds it regrettable whenever we have to stand before a body like this suggesting that perhaps the use should not be agriculture," he continued. "However, we also are very, very cognizant of people's private property rights."

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