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28 February 2011

Visit a Tomato Farm in Florida

During the winter holidays I visited the tomato farm where my uncle works. It's in southern Florida near Naples/Ave Maria. If I remember right it's roughly 10 square miles of land.

The plants are grown in very sandy and level fields surrounded by drainage canals. Some fields are drip irrigated and others are flooded.The soil is ploughed into raised beds and fertilized at the same time. Then they're covered in a plastic wrap to keep the fertilizer in and so they don't erode. Stakes are driven in and string is strung between them for the vines to grow on. Finally seedlings are placed and take about 2-3 months before they bear fruit. Each plant can be picked three times but each successive picking yields lower quality tomatoes.

When the alligators in the surrounding canals get to about 6'-7', such as this one is, they're "harvested." They were surprisingly skittish.

This reflective film is supposed to keep away bugs. The view literally went on for miles.

All the farm heads keep a private garden on the outskirts that are planted with cabbage, peppers, bell peppers, cilantro, etc. Everything grows at a greatly accelerated rate here because it's essentially a semi-hydroponic system powered by Florida sun.

This station filters and adds nutrients to the water. A computer does all the work and keeps tabs on everything. They know down to the penny how much of each fertilizer they're putting in every acre. Every aspect of the site is like a long term experiment.

There's also an uneasily fanatic drive towards cleanliness. Every day all the buckets are rinsed in a mild chlorine solution. Any plant that a bird defecates on is marked and anything within a 5' radius cannot be picked... it's some sort of regulation. I wonder if the scared public/lawmakers realizes that bird poo is fertilizer?

This is my uncle's solar powered shipping container tool shed/man cave.

Workers use a pneumatic air gun to press wooden stakes into the raised beds - all day long.

I felt kind of weird pointing my camera at people that I didn't even talk to. This machine is ploughing the raised beds and adding (I believe) the P value of the fertilizer (which always consists of a N-P-K mix).

The beds have to be covered quickly with plastic because the fertilizer is gaseous.

Drip irrigation costs more but yields are higher per acre as compared to flooding which requires big drainage canals every so often. Again, they can quote the cost of all this stuff per acre down to pennies and give you a back of the napkin cost benefit of plant variety, season, area of the farm, and what course of action should be taken - it's fascinating in the way that watching anyone who's good at what they do is always interesting.

Sand hill cranes. They're huge! Those are people size.

They allow a bee keeper to keep hives on their land even though tomatoes don't need pollination. There were over 20 hives.

They grow rounds, ugly (their own variety), and plum tomatoes. Here workers are picking plums and being paid by the basket; I forget how much they get paid, somewhere around 25 to 50 cents per basket and each one takes about 2 or 3 minutes to pick and haul. The foreman (the guy who's pouring the basket into the truck) gives them a token for each basket picked and the workers usually jog back to their picking spot. Every few minutes the trucks move down the isles to keep pace with the workers. They pick them green so they don't bruise prior to being sold.

Again with the hygiene - here's a mobile hand washing station.

The laborers are actually contracted out and run by someone else. The foreman owns the buses and sets the wages. The farm pays by weight picked so there's an interesting exchange there where if the yield is bad the workers may not get on the bus and essentially work harder for less, or of course the opposite can be true.

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