The Final Harvest

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

Critics of the Farm Bureau argue that the group favors those who sit on its board. Nature's Way, for example, has a representative on the board. Moreover, board members' own interests take precedence over those of smaller farmers, critics claim, citing examples such as the Kendalls and the Coopers, who farmed mainly row crops (primarily tomatoes, beans, and potatoes) and made millions by selling large tracts that can be quickly developed. George Cooper, Jr., sits on the board. A vice president of Kendall's company, Kendall Foods, is also a board member.

"The row crop is a developer's dream," says one zoning official who has watched the area for decades. "It's in a holding pattern on the way to the zoning board."

The split between smaller and larger growers mirrors an important change in the county's agriculture. Farming in South Dade traces its history to the turn of the century, when the federal government encouraged homesteaders to settle here by giving away parcels of land. By the early 1900s scattered farms extended from inside the Everglades all the way north to present-day Miami Lakes.

"The whole place was a swamp -- scorpions, bugs, alligators, Indians," says Kirby, whose grandfather farmed tomatoes and served a stint as the mayor of Homestead. "My grandmother used to tell me about sitting on the porch and watching Indians come out of the swamp. But they came because they saw this place as an opportunity, and they worked hard and they made something out of it."

Most of the original farmers planted vegetable rows or fruit groves. Despite land grants and cheap acreage, farming proved difficult in the climate, with its extreme temperatures and violent storms.

By the early 1990s the northern frontier of Dade County's agricultural lands had receded to the lower third of the county, washed away in a tide of residential development that consumed 4000 acres between 1982 and 1992, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Speculation and development drove up land prices sharply.

When NAFTA passed in 1993, another blow was dealt to growers, who were unable to compete with Mexico. Many farmers found themselves forced to borrow from bankers to finance their operations; they used their land as collateral for loans, the amounts of which were often contingent on the likelihood that the land would be developed at some point. But restrictive zoning measures have reduced the value of the land, Kirby and Losner say.

"What we have is a government that is allowing Mexico to bring products in to destroy our industry," says past Farm Bureau president Fredrick. "Our government is allowing unfair competition at our expense. Don't tie our hands and let the other guy beat us up -- that's all we are asking."

All in all, government has brought the farmer to ruin in several ways, according to Kirby: First, through excessive regulation. Second, through zoning codes that hinder development and thus prevent farmers from borrowing on the speculative value of their land. And third -- here the government moves in for the kill -- by condemning land for use as parks and water conservation areas.

In recent years a new type of agriculturist has come on the scene in South Dade. Disparagingly called gentleman or "lifestyle" farmers by the many older row-crop and grove growers, the recent arrivals have concentrated on ornamental and landscaping plants or exotic fruits, often using greenhouses. Nurseries tend to need less land but a larger start-up investment. More technologically advanced, the nurseries are able to compete with the less-capitalized Mexican grower. More often than not, these gentleman farmers live where they work. By 1992 nearly 60 percent of all Dade County farms consisted of nine or fewer acres, and only 13 percent were 50 acres or larger. The huge farms of yesteryear are being replaced by smaller holdings.

Typical of the new breed is Martin Mote, a former University of Ohio poetry professor who quit academia twenty years ago and parlayed a love of orchids into a $200,000-per-year business. Mote owns a giant greenhouse containing a lush, fragrant jungle of orchids in every hue imaginable. An assistant germinates and creates new hybrids in a farm shed converted to a laboratory. Mote ships orchids all over the world. "Even though the Thais pay their workers 25 cents, our edge is technology," he says.

Mote disparages the Farm Bureau and the larger growers he believes the organization represents. "These people are talking like they are the oldest inhabitants of the village," he said. "The land speculator who was formerly a farmer is no different from the land speculator who was formerly a stockbroker -- he's not a farmer any more."

South Dade's nursery owners now account for 25 percent of the ornamental plants sold in the United States, according to the Farm Bureau. Yet despite their economic power and various trade organizations, these horticulturists, who grow everything from palm trees to bonsai, have yet to assert their authority as industry leaders or even to reach a consensus about what they want out of an agricultural retention plan. "Farmers have an intense sense of individuality," explains Mote, who does not belong to the Farm Bureau. "Trying to organize these people is like herding cats."

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