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A Lesser Known Florida

August 01, 2013

Looking out the window flying into Tampa, Florida, a visitor will see small towns along the coast, perhaps a glimpse of sprawling Orlando, and plenty of green spaces in between. Tampa Bay appears and you have arrived in the Sunshine State. As you deplane you are welcomed by warm, tropical air. Florida has long occupied space in the popular imagination as a destination for retirees, snowbirds, and tourists who visit to enjoy her beaches, warm ocean water, and amusement parks from Orlando’s Disneyworld and Magic Kingdom to Miami’s Seaquarium.  

Yet there is another side to Florida that few visitors or even residents are aware of, one rarely visited but hinted at when taking vitamins and herbal supplements while enjoying fresh Florida orange juice. Florida is the second largest producer of vegetables and fruits in the country, producing grapefruit, oranges, sugarcane, bell peppers, and more, with export values worth $3.1 billion in 2011. Florida tomato farms produce 45 percent of the nation’s tomato crop and are the country’s primary source of winter tomatoes (FDACS 2012).

Travel less than 20 minutes east of Tampa on I-4 and you will arrive in Plant City, a source of winter strawberries. Continue northeast and you will pass many farms and cattle ranches as well as swamps, state parks, wilderness and wildlife areas. You will know you are near Orlando when you suddenly come upon the town of Celebration, a master-planned community of about 7,000 developed in the early 1990s by the Walt Disney Company in Kissimmee, complete with a post office designed by the architect Michael Graves. Continue northeast through Orlando and you again enter rural Florida. Apopka is a small town that calls itself “The Indoor Foliage Capital of the World” where local citrus and vegetable industries have transformed to provide landscape, foliage and ornamental plants to homeowners across the nation. Apopka is also host to the headquarters of the Farmworker Association of Florida (FWAF), an organization representing farmworkers throughout Central and South Florida for over 25 years, dedicated to collectively “challenging the systems which keep farmworkers and the rural poor in situations of poverty, exploitation, and powerlessness” locally, statewide, and at the federal level. Just as in California and other vegetable and fruit producing states, orchards and farms rely primarily on migrant Latino labor to farm and harvest these crops. Latino migrant farm workers earn low wages, averaging between $5,000 and $10,000 annually, but undocumented workers make less, between $2,500 and $5,000 a year (USDL 2012). This is a less sunny side of Florida seldom seen by visitors, but one that the state’s economy depends on. Beyond advocating for worker justice, the FWAF addresses pesticide exposure, immigration rights, health education, disaster response and more.

On this journey along I-4 you have passed through habitats such as bayhead wetlands, lakeshore marshes or swamps, pine flatwoods, sandhill uplands, scrub, and even the rare mixed mesophytic forest, all places where the ubiquitous saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) is found but often overlooked. It is common throughout Florida and the southeast United States, and is a sturdy, shrubby, low-growing and clumpy palm with woody trunks that “creep along the ground,” so common it was considered a nuisance weed. Research centered on how best to eradicate it until the mid-1990s when it’s berries exploded in popularity as an herbal supplement, marketed to men as helpful for benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). Recognizing its growing value to industry and landowners, the state designated it an agricultural crop in 1997. 

Saw palmetto plant along a roadSaw palmetto plant along a road.

The saw palmetto berry industry, centered in south Florida around the small, agricultural town of Immokalee, has grown in value to $700 million annually (Moerck 2012). The major berry processing companies reported processing 2,648,000 pounds, or 1,324 tons, of dried berries in 2008 (AHPA 2011). Most of these are exported to Europe where the dried berries are processed, standardized, and used as a pharmaceutical drug for the treatment of BPH, a use not FDA approved in the United States (AHPA 2011), yet many are processed into herbal supplements found in drug stores and supermarkets. It has become one of the highest earning commercial medicinal plants in the United States as well as the second most popular herbal supplement in the country as of 2010 (ABC).

Aside from its value to local industry, it is particularly valuable to Latino and other farmworkers and migrants who are often out of work at the same time the berry is fruiting – about mid-July through October. The berries are picked throughout the southeast, from Florida to Georgia, from rangeland, state forests and parks, backyards, even highway medians. They can be worth between 10 cents and $1 a pound, though during the ‘berry boom’ of 1995 buyers paid upwards of $3 a pound for a brief period. Hundreds of pounds a day are brought to rural roadside stands throughout south and central Florida then transported to Immokalee, about an hour south of Tampa, where an informal berry market thrives from mid-July through October. Visit Immokalee and you can miss it in the blink of an eye, but during berry season cars and trucks of all sizes descend on this town daily, converging at the seemingly chaotic, informal market where buyers and sellers negotiate cash prices. Berry pickers can make upwards of $100 a day in cash – a much welcome income that not only supplements poor wages from agriculture work but also serves to meet basic needs at a time that little work or other income earning opportunities exist. This income provides an opportunity to shore up savings or purchase needed household items. The boom in the popularity of saw palmetto berries continues to benefit some of the most marginalized of Florida residents: its farmworkers. The largest community of farmworkers in Florida is found in Immokalee, also home to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), established in 1993 and representing over 5,000 Latino, Mayan Indian, and Haitian immigrants, many who work in agriculture. The CIW is best known for its Campaign for Fair Food and Anti-Slavery Campaign, advocating for farmworker wages and human rights throughout the country.    

It is these lesser known places, people, and industries just outside the Florida of the popular imagination that make it possible for many to enjoy winter tomatoes, Florida orange juice, and saw palmetto berry supplements. The space between Florida’s east and west coast is rarely noticed but is rich in diverse habitats and landscapes, and livelihood practices. Cattle ranches, commercial farms and orchards, and other traditional uses of the land rely on Latino and other farmworkers and migrants to succeed and some farmworkers in turn, rely on the wild saw palmetto plant to enhance their own livelihoods. The landscapes between Florida’s east and west coasts are host to a diversity and complexity of people and practices belied by both the view from above and the conceptualization of Florida as sunshine, beaches, and vacation destinations.

Field trips to Apopka or Immokalee and all places in between can be arranged if there is interest. ♦

Christine Mitchell
Ph. D. Candidate, Geosciences Department
Florida Atlantic University


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