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."

Such advocacy, say his opponents, has earned him the reputation as a henchman for a few wealthy landowners who see a potential to reap huge profits by turning their fields into tract housing.

But neither Kirby nor the high-priced attorney was sufficiently persuasive. After about two and a half hours of debate, the council rejected the application by a vote of 6-0. The setback hasn't discouraged Nature's Way, which filed an appeal with the county commission; the company will need the votes of nine of the thirteen commissioners to overrule the denial.

The Nature's Way hearing was not the first time the Farm Bureau has asked for a zoning change that would enable farmers to sell their land. And recently the Farm Bureau board refused to support an agricultural retention plan that would examine various land-use issues and development options for South Dade.

The Farm Bureau's leadership justifies its actions by portraying property owners as a victimized minority fighting to survive in the face of a cabal of environmentalists and rapacious government officials.

"There is a state of crisis," asserts Kirby. "But it doesn't have to do with land acquisition." The problem, he says, lies in declining profits in agriculture, thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has forced Dade farmers to compete with Mexico's cheaper labor and less stringent regulations. And with the possibility of agricultural trade with Cuba on the horizon, the picture could darken considerably. If farmers can't make a decent living on the land, why shouldn't they have the right to decide what will become of it?

He is reminded of Charles Burr's plea before Council 14 last fall to save the Redland from encroaching suburbia: "Charlie Burr does very well -- and if he didn't, he would be the first to sell."

Government officials and activists alike agree that if Dade's agricultural land is to be saved, it must be saved soon. There are 19,000 acres of farmland still inside the Urban Development Boundary. With the 10,000 acres already set aside (some of it condemned, as Kirby is quick to point out, and, he believes, bought under value) for state water management and federal reserves, that could leave just 54,000 acres remaining for agriculture. Dade needs 50,000 acres to support an agricultural industry and its related businesses, according to estimates by the Redland Conservancy, an agricultural preservation activist group. Kirby agrees there is a critical mass number, but he says it has yet to be established. "The free-market system would tell you when you reach [it]," he says.

The alternative to farming looms in stark profile above the flat fields: Just north of the Redland, off Krome Avenue and Killian Drive, a swath of new subdivisions marches west, gobbling up acres of tomatoes that stand in its path. Rows of identical houses offer the American dream, and at affordable prices. Less than a mile behind them begin the strip malls and gas stations, arrayed together like so many camp followers. As Dade's population increases, the progression of development to the south and the west seems inevitable.

"Without a commitment from at least a majority of community stakeholders, the land necessary for agriculture will be paved over," says Samuel Poole, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District. "Agriculture will never compete with shopping centers and subdivisions."

Kirby and several Dade County Farm Bureau officials are explaining their philosophy as they sit around a table in the organization's warrenlike, colonial-style headquarters in Homestead. The American Farm Bureau Federation is a national trade organization based in Washington, D.C., although its member chapters maintain local autonomy. The organization holds a 501(c)(5) nonprofit status, a special designation for agriculture that allows it to lobby and donate to political campaigns. The Farm Bureau funds the majority of its activities through donations and fundraisers, according to Kirby, who is a salaried employee.

Some chapters, including Dade County's, provide an additional service: Farm Bureau insurance, for which there are several underwriting groups. Obtaining coverage, particularly for crops, is often difficult for Dade farmers, who can lose years of investment in a single hurricane or a severe freeze. The catch is that in order to get the insurance the applicant must pay $50 per year to become a member of the Farm Bureau.

But farmers are the minority members in this chapter, where insurance is open to all comers. Of the 4000-strong membership, a figure Kirby trumpets at public meetings, only 1200 are actually involved in agriculture; the rest are simply policyholders.

"We are a bona fide, representative, agricultural body," insists John Fredrick, co-owner of Atlantic FEC Fertilizer Company, a current board member and former president of the chapter. "This is the group that embodies and encompasses the broadest spectrum of agriculture interests."

Indeed, the 35-member board of the Dade County Farm Bureau includes representatives of the three types of farms in Dade County: row crops, tropical fruits, and nurseries. Board members from these different groups are elected every year from nominations made by the previous board and are generally drawn from the larger agricultural businesses. In addition, two of the seats currently belong to the area's most prominent bankers: the colorful Bill Losner of First National Bank of Homestead, and Robert Epling of the Community Bank of Homestead, who together hold mortgages and loans on many of the farms in South Dade. (According to news reports, Losner allegedly pulled a gun on a long-time zoning activist in 1988 in a case that ended with the banker paying an undisclosed settlement. He is also an elected member of Community Council 14. The Farm Bureau supported his campaign with the maximum $500 contribution.)

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."

One person who knows the perils of trying to bring the agricultural community together is Dade County Commissioner Katy Sorenson, who represents parts of the Redland. "The Farm Bureau claims to be the voice of agriculture," she says. "Well, I hear many voices of agriculture, and I feel responsible to listen to them all."

Sorenson's efforts on behalf of farming in South Dade have made her and her staff the targets of blistering attacks by the Farm Bureau. "A county commissioner who has no history here, and who refuses to listen to anybody who does, is our problem," says Kirby. "[She] should be trying to unify this community, not dividing it for the sake of consensus or while hiding behind the guise of consensus."

Kirby and other Farm Bureau officials are particularly upset at Sorenson's support for the proposed agricultural retention study. They fired off a press release questioning her motives. Sorenson, they contend, is being manipulated by an aide who hopes to populate the Redland with bed-and-breakfasts. Gabriele Marewski, who runs Sorenson's district office in the South Dade Government Center, briefly tried to start one such establishment -- they're not legal under current county zoning codes -- out of her home before she took a job with the commissioner. Kirby alleges that she continues to operate the establishment. Marewski denies she runs the bed-and-breakfast, insisting that the idea never got off the ground.

"You have [Marewski] who is working in a county commissioner's office," said Kirby. "Now remember, she is a holder of the public trust. You can point fingers at me all you want. I am not elected. This body is not a public body. She is somebody who is formulating public policy who is operating an illegal establishment."

Bed-and-breakfasts alarm Kirby because they represent what he portrays as a concerted effort to turn the Redland into a farm theme park -- too dear a price for its salvation. "It's the creation of all this Napa Valley stuff. This ecotourism product," Kirby said. "This smacks of bed-and-breakfast. That smacks of bed-and-breakfast. Everything smacks of bed-and-breakfast." And with the possible addition of hiking, horse, and bike trails, and the proposed designation of Krome Avenue (which borders the western Redland) as a scenic highway, the rights of farmers in the area would be limited. All those ideas are being debated, and the Farm Bureau doesn't like any of them. In fact, it wants to widen the two-lane Krome to four.

Meanwhile Kirby pillories Sorenson on another front: commercial redevelopment of the decommissioned Homestead air base. Environmentalists have criticized plans to build a two-runway cargo hub because the proposed airport sits between Everglades and Biscayne national parks. Last year their protests forced the air force and the Federal Aviation Authority to perform a supplemental environmental impact study on the feasibility of handing the base over to Dade County.

The Farm Bureau supports the cargo hub; farmers need the air base to stabilize the economy, which has been devastated by the twin calamities of Hurricane Andrew and NAFTA, Kirby says. (Some farmers with land adjacent to the air base stand to make a fortune if there is secondary development around the airport.) Recently the bureau cosponsored, with the Homestead Chamber of Commerce, a trip to Tallahassee to lobby the governor's cabinet on the issue. They won an endorsement.

For her criticism of the way in which base redevelopment is being pursued, Commissioner Sorenson was a frequent target in an anonymous newsletter, the South Dade Economic Indicator, that circulated in the region last year. The usually talkative Kirby has little to say when asked about the publication. "I have no comment," he begins, then acknowledges, "It certainly got some people's attention. It drives poor Katy crazy. I haven't seen a recent issue, but that's not to say more might not come out."

One man who knows both how important and how difficult it is to work with the Farm Bureau is Reginald Walters, who served in the county planning department for 28 years, 26 of them as director.

"Dade County needs to have a balance between urban and agricultural land," says the 65-year-old Walters, who belongs to the Redland Conservancy. "It makes for a healthier existence."

He characterizes Dade's farming as a gold mine for county taxpayers: The total impact of agriculture on the county's economy in 1996 was $834 million, but its consumption of county services is well below that of residential or industrial development. In addition, South Dade's farmland and open spaces provide a needed release from the urban congestion farther north.

Walters paints the issue as one of individual versus community rights. "If everyone in Dade County could exercise their individual rights and say, 'I do whatever I want with zoning,' we would have chaos," he says. "To be totally free, sometimes we have to give up certain rights. Otherwise we wouldn't have traffic lights."

Back in 1980 Walters presided over efforts to pass an agricultural retention plan similar to the one contemplated today. Although the plan did manage to create an agricultural designation on county land-use maps, it failed to obtain any protections for those lands; those guarantees were lost in battles with the same opponents who object to the current plan. "We would be foolish indeed to allow the farmers to let this opportunity slip away," Walters says.

The former county planner sees one major difference between the current plan and that of twenty years ago -- increased support from nursery growers and Redland's residents. But Alan Farago, chairman of the Miami chapter of the Sierra Club, holds a more pessimistic outlook. "In my view," he says, "farmers and environmentalists are really on the same side of the table, although that doesn't happen here because [farmers have] given up on the government. This business of 'Let's get government out of our lives' is really a smoke screen for 'Let's get government to do what benefits [us] personally.'"

Like the nursery farmers, environmentalists have a way of eliciting epithets from Farm Bureau supporters. Names like "predators" and "carpetbaggers" who work in collusion with Big Brother toward a host of evils, from turning schoolchildren against growers to demanding the condemnation of private property for public use.

For the Farm Bureau, the fight is not about personal benefit. It's a basic issue of property rights, members insist, and of permitting farmers to use their knowledge to determine their own destiny.

Those property rights, they say, have been abused for years. For example, long before Everglades National Park was established, farmers cultivated an area within it called the Hole-in-the-Donut. When the federal government decided to absorb the Hole-in-the Donut into the park, the farmers asked that they be allowed to phase out their cultivation, after which they would replant the area with native species. The federal government turned them down, only to have the area eventually overrun with exotic trees.

But times have changed. In 1996 the state paid a land corporation primarily composed of five families $43 million (which included lawyers' fees and interest) for 5200 acres -- three times what they originally paid for the land -- in an area near the Everglades known as the Frog Pond. It will ultimately serve as a wetland buffer for the park and a water storage area.

"Do you own a home?" asks Steve Sapp, current Farm Bureau president and a lime and bean grower, trying to explain his frustration. "It would be as if the government told you that you could only have a single person in your house forever, and you couldn't marry."

"And no dogs," adds Fredrick.
"Yeah, and no dogs. That's what they want to say to us: 'You can't do anything on your land but put agriculture on it forever and ever,' and that's not right."

The Farm Bureau's view on private property closely mirrors the legal doctrine called "taking," which some believe should mean that when government condemns land, it should pay what the owner would have earned from the greatest amount of development.

"It's really, in the end, about high-priced lawyers getting top dollar for their clients," says Farago. The taking doctrine is championed by the so-called wise-use movement, an alliance of corporate interests and property-rights associations formed in the 1980s to combat environmental regulations. Farm Bureau chapters across the country have sided with wise-use groups on hot-button issues such as wolf reintroduction to Yellowstone Park, regulation of ozone-depleting chemicals, and wetland preservation.

In particular, the Dade County Farm Bureau earned its wise-use credentials when Tom Kirby took a short film to a Dade County Commission meeting in 1996. To this day, mention of the film draws exclamations from environmentalists and zoning activists who were present in commission chambers that day. When the subject is raised with Kirby, he throws up his hands and says, "I can't get away with anything."

The incident took place at a May 14, 1996, county commission meeting on the development master plan, which exists ostensibly to guide the county's growth. The commission had before it two amendments proposed by the superintendent of Biscayne National Park.

After detailing how runoff from development had decimated marine life in north Biscayne Bay, park director Richard Frost urged commissioners to recommend that the state community affairs office in Tallahassee impose a moratorium on building around southern Biscayne Bay, where the park is located. "South Dade still has a chance to do it right with some long-term planning," Frost told them.

Zoning attorney Stanley Price quickly set the tone for those who opposed the amendments. "We don't like to be told by Big Brother --" he began, as he questioned a building freeze for an area the county has not yet zoned for development.

That's when Tom Kirby strode to the podium, a half-smile on his face. He presented a familiar refrain: There wasn't sufficient science to prove the plan's merits. Too much freshwater might kill manatees, he cautioned gravely. He then introduced the second part of his presentation, stating he hoped it might inject a little levity into the debate.

"I'd like to show you a brief video that best characterizes how the citizens of South Dade feel about the issues before you today," he said.

The lights dimmed as the video Big Park opened with a computer graphic showing a Pac-Man, dressed in an evil grin and a park ranger hat, gobbling up houses. As the theme from the film Jaws plays in the background, the credits dissolve to a scene of pastoral tranquillity: A grandmother in a rocking chair outside her house; a little girl presenting her Raggedy Ann doll to her mother. But the tableau is shattered by the arrival of four Department of Interior park rangers wearing sunglasses and sidearms, one of whom undoes the fastener on his gun holster as the leader breaks into song:

"Pardon me, is that your home?
"The house you worked so hard to own.
Sure would make a nice hotel.
We have ways to make you sell!"

The rangers tear through the house, raiding the refrigerator, throwing mother and daughter down the stairs, stripping a portrait of George Washington off the wall. This, as they sing about the ease of home invasion. The video ends with an image of the family locked in a cattle truck and carted away.

As the lights went up in the commission chambers, opponents of the park's proposal clapped. Superintendent Frost fumed. "I was stunned," he remembers. "It was so extreme, bigoted, and insulting. At first it was very uncomfortable to sit there and not respond, but it was overkill on their part."

Frost believes the film backfired on the Farm Bureau. Out of the commission meeting came a working group of land-holding interests, environmentalists, and government officials. The forum has obligated the parties to work toward consensus. "We got to know each other personally," says Frost. "There are no more cheap shots in public -- with the exception of Tom Kirby. That's his modus operandi."

Among those who advocate keeping a whole range of options open, including unlimited development for the Redland, the Farm Bureau is the most strident, says Frost.

"The Farm Bureau says, 'Protect borrowing power.' If that is really what they are interested in, there are ways to do it. I would be happy to be a champion of that cause. But protection for farmers is different from saying that land should be turned into residential. It's a hard reality, but ultimately it's going to take a planning effort."

There are signs that long-range planning will go forward, whether the Farm Bureau wants it to or not. At the end of April, despite Farm Bureau opposition, Dade Mayor Alex Penelas endorsed a contract to perform the agriculture retention study. At a meeting in South Dade, dozens of speakers, farmers, and activists voiced support for the plan.

In an effort perhaps to get Farm Bureau opponents to play along, county planners have said on numerous occasions that they want the plan to look at issues of farm profitability, as well as to incorporate a cost accounting of agriculture that will include its hidden benefits, such as a need for fewer services and the value of open spaces.

Lourdes Rodriguez was among those at the mayor's meeting, where farmers who had never participated in discussions on South Dade spoke up for the first time. Rodriguez is manager of Manny Diaz Farms, which has more than 1000 acres of ornamental plants under cultivation.

"The Farm Bureau philosophy is that this plan is going to tie the hands of farmers as far as what they can do with their own land," she says. "But it can't be everyone just doing what they want. If you have unplanned, uncontrolled development, then you really lose the value of your land. You can do houses anywhere, but you can't replace marl.

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Miami Concert Tickets
Loading...