Photo by WILLIAM DESHAZER, Naples Daily News // Buy this photo
IMMOKALEE — Loran Hershberger is interested in getting some helpful farming tips from the agricultural pros.
So, the Bonita Springs resident along with 200 other Southwest Florida residents this week attended an eastern Collier County farm tour hosted by the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
“It’s nice to see how Florida really operates behind the scenes,” said Hershberger, 75, who looked at how the planting beds were set up at local farms.
From nursery farms and organic and hydroponic system farms to packinghouses and citrus groves, Southwest Florida residents went on an all-day excursion Wednesday to four eastern Collier County farms. The group also stopped at the Immokalee Produce Market to buy some freshly picked produce.
“We want to make sure they have a taste of what’s growing in the county,” said Robert Halman, agriculture and small farms agent for the university.
American Farms nursery is visited annually, while the other farms were selected for the tour because sponsors like to select different farms each year, either because they are newer or smaller farms, Halman said.
At American Farms nursery, a wholesale grower of annuals and perennials, the group toured a computer-operated greenhouse, which is irrigated by a carousel system. The nursery at 1484 Keane Ave., in Golden Gate Estates, is the largest vending plant grower in Southwest Florida.
The 72-acre nursery grows more than 650 varieties of plants year-round. The farm, which has plants in ground beds, plants every week throughout the year.
Among the most popular ones this season are geraniums, petunias and impatiens.
We want to make sure they have a taste of what’s growing in the county.”
Robert Halman, agriculture and small farms agent
The nursery, which initially opened on 10 acres, has been open for 21 years. It has three distributions centers — Orlando, Tampa and Miami. An estimated 50 percent of the products are sold to landscaping companies.
Owner Alex Salazar said the nursery grows an estimated 22 million plants a year. About 450,000 units a week are sold wholesale, including to Walt Disney World and Wal-Mart.
Many attendees snapped pictures of the array of flowers.
“We have been able to grow more with less water and less space,” Salazar told the group.
At Collier Family Farms, in the eastern Collier community of Ave Maria, visitors headed into the fields to see the organic produce.
Collier Family Farms spans 45 acres, of which about 6 acres is used to harvest currently. The farm has been open since late January.
Currently, Collier Family Farms harvests 20 varieties of produce in 60 rows of 500-foot-long by 32-inch-wide beds. The farm sells its produce at a stand on site.
In its first season, Collier Family Farms grew bell peppers, hot peppers, broccoli, kale, leafy greens, tomatoes, eggplant, squash and onions. Elvin Engle, farm manager, said they lost all of the tomatoes, or about $20,000, this season due to blight.
“It’s a learning curve. We are figuring it out,” he said.
The farm offers a public u-pick, a farm stand and farm tours, all of which drew the attention of the Hersbergers.
“We are having a great time,” said Hershberger’s wife, Joann.
The Bonita Springs couple, originally from Iowa, have been harvesting for about eight years. Loran Hershberger, who attended the Lee farm tour once, grows carrots, onions, green beans, squash, tomatoes and peppers in a small garden plot outside of his house.
At Lipman, several employees sorted grape tomatoes passing through grading tables while visitors toured the packinghouse. The group toured the operation on Main Street in Immokalee to see its grape tomatoes packed, its greening room and ozone generator room.
Chief tomato officer Jerry Odell said Lipman is at one of its higher production points of the season now.
Lipman Produce, formerly Six L’s, has two tomato packinghouses in Immokalee. The Lipman site toured Wednesday packs Roma, cherry and grape tomatoes. In Immokalee, Lipman also has a vegetable packinghouse and a potato packinghouse. Lipman grows produce in other Florida farms, including Palm Beach, Hendry, Charlotte and Manatee counties.
In the spring and fall, Lipman works in the tomato industry in South Carolina. In the summer, the company works in the vegetable industry in North Carolina. It also produces tomatoes in Virginia and California.
Odell declined to say how much is packed or grown or the acreage of any of the facilities.
The group’s last stop was Silver Strand Three citrus grove at 1990 Camp Keais Road, in Immokalee.
Before entering the citrus grove, the buses were sprayed with vinegar and hydrogen peroxide for citrus black spot. No one was allowed off the bus for safety reasons.
The 2,700-acre citrus grove produces about 700,000 boxes, which weigh 90 pounds each, per year. The farm uses a micro sprinkler system for irrigation.
Citrus manager Forrest Taylor, who manages four groves in Collier, said 98 percent of the oranges that are grown are sold to Tropicana for its juice products.
The main threat for citrus growers today is the citrus greening disease, Taylor said. More than 10 years ago, the farm lost 400 acres due to citrus canker eradication efforts.