Winter vegetables: another 'growth' industry

Citrus is so closely associated with this state that there are people who think ''Floridoranges'' is one word. But citrus isn't the whole game. Florida serves as winter vegetable patch for the eastern half of the United States. During the 1980-81 season, Florida farmers planted 400,000 acres, which produced some 40 different kinds of vegetables. Total crop value last year was $927 million, says Dr. Donald Maynard , chairman of the University of Florida's department of vegetable crops.

The season runs from early fall through June, tapering off just as farms further north start producing.

At the state farmers' market here in Pompano Beach, trucks full of the morning's pickings start backing up to the big main shed in the early afternoon. It's not all trucks, though, manager Max D. Goza notes. ''We've got people coming in here in everything from a semitruck to a station wagon with a rooftop rack.'' Some 300 growers are represented here, ranging from corporations to small farmers who pick their crops with the aid of ''captive'' labor - their children.

It's a good mix of large and small. Smaller operators produce specialty varieties that bigger operators couldn't afford to deal in.

The crops traded here include varieties of peppers, snap beans, squash, and eggplant, so-called ''dry'' crops that grow well in southeast Florida's beachlike soil. Tomatoes and other ''wet'' crops are grown in the ''muck'' soil further inland and traded through other farmers' markets.

The Pompano Beach market is rather quiet on this particular day; the sun is out now, but it's been a wet season. ''Prices are good, but production is down, '' Mr. Goza says, looking over the latest price reports.

Once hauled to the farmers' market, the varieties of beans and peppers and other items work their way through a network of selling brokers, buying brokers, and transportation brokers. Then it's into the trucks and onto Interstate 95 for the trek to terminal markets and supermarket warehouses in the Northeast and Midwest. ''It's 36 hours to New York,'' says Mr. Goza. Other markets served include Boston, Toronto, Detroit, and Cleveland.

The value of produce passing through this market has varied from some $30 million to over $55 million annually in recent years. But if vegetables traded in absentia, so to speak, by the brokers based here are counted, the value would be about three times that. And the biggest growers have direct contracts with supermarket chains.

South Florida's winter vegetable industry goes back to the 1920s and '30s, when Midwestern and New England farmers moved here, drained and filled the land, and started growing, according to Dr. Maynard.

Their first crops headed north in railcars, and then came a gradual switch to trucks. Florida's roads were pretty primitive, however. ''Trucks had to have steel wheels, like trains,'' Mr. Goza recalls. Fortunately, roads have improved , along with insulation and refrigeration technology.

Nowadays, the value of the state's vegetable production is increasing, beyond inflation, even as acreage is being reduced.

''There's no realistic limit to growing vegetables in Florida,'' Dr. Maynard says. ''We're at capacity in terms of market.'' The goal now is to increase efficiency rather than production.

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