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Aug. 19, 2002 - Miami Herald

Farming's Uncertain Future - The Battle for the Redlands

By: Cara Buckley

Steven Borek Jr. is a farmer, and a farmer he wants to stay. Like his father, who died when the boy was 3, and his grandfather before that, Borek has tilled thousands of acres of Homestead's rich soil, coaxed beans, tomatoes and corn from its depths, and risen before countless sunups to shelter his family's crops from ferocious frosts.

''My son wants to farm; he's just like his father,'' said Steven's mother, Teena Borek. Together, mother and son farm 315 acres -- 95 percent of it leased. A decade ago, they worked 1,000 acres but were forced off most of it by rising rent and plummeting crop values. ''But I'm afraid for him in farming because the chances economically are very slim.''

Subject to and subjugated by nature, vulnerable to consumer whims and changing trade winds, the fragility of farming is nothing new.

But in southern Miami-Dade County, home to a $1 billion agricultural industry, a recent University of Florida report confirms what the scores of potato, tomato and corn farmers already know: The region's row crop industry is dying, and the chances for large-scale farms' survival have never been as slim.

''The economic returns to operators and landlords are currently insufficient to keep large acreages of row crop and grove land in agriculture,'' reads the Miami-Dade County Agricultural Land Retention Study, which was released in June and is considered to be the most extensive analysis of South Dade farming to date. Row crops include tomatoes, potatoes, corn and beans. ''The long-term prognosis is increasingly grim.''

The fate of row crops will chart the course for farming in Miami-Dade -- they make up more than half of the region's 85,000 acres of agricultural land. The future of this land has already ignited a fierce battle that has torn South Dade's agricultural community in two.

At stake: Miami-Dade's last large tract of undeveloped land, the only buffer between encroaching subdivisions and the Everglades.

On one side of the conflict are larger growers, like the Boreks, who farm on 50-plus acres of land and want the option of selling their fields to the highest bidder.

The bulk of these farmers grow crops on their own land and leased property, often rented from out-of-state and foreign owners. Most grow products described by the study as agriculture's most endangered.

''We're all trying to hang in here as long as we can,'' said John Algers, who farms 500 acres of potatoes and corn and 140 acres of trees. Algers owns 75 percent of his land. ''But if I start losing money, I want options. My family spent three generations, since 1945, investing in this area with our blood, sweat and tears, and dollars.''

On the other side are smaller-scale cultivators, the horticulturists, orchid and ornamental plant growers who are determined to maintain Miami-Dade County's last vestige of lush, privately owned, undeveloped land, the lone shield between encroaching urban sprawl and the Everglades.

''We're the only 7 percent of the county's land area that is undeveloped,'' said Brent Probinsky, a lawyer who also grows lychees, starfruit, carambolas and longans on 10 acres of land. ''Unless a program is implemented to slow down and control urbanization, within two or three decades, South Dade's agriculture will disappear.''

With Florida's population growing by 700 people a day, the pressure to make houses out of fields is enormous. Cash incentives are certainly there: Land zoned as residential is worth five times as much as agricultural land.

While the large farms have the land, small farmers have the numbers: Eighty-seven percent of South Dade's farms are less than 50 acres, comprising 13 percent of the region's farmland. The other 13 percent of the farms, which have 50 acres or more, occupy 87 percent of the land.

The one thing both sides share is a love of farming. Beyond that, the rifts are deep.

Large farmers paint smaller growers as hobbyists, retirees or professionals who farm on the side. Small farmers deride large farmers as speculators whose only concern is getting the biggest bang for their buck.

''Farming's an industry in decline,'' said John Van Sickle, an agricultural economist at the University of Florida. ''Is it extinct? You tell me how fast the urban population is going to grow, and how fast the federal government's going to absorb land for protection.''


According to the report, the North American Free Trade Agreement, which came on the heels of Hurricane Andrew, is the chief culprit in the slow death of South Dade's large farms. NAFTA ushered a flood of cheap Mexican crops into the U.S. market, and many of the nation's farmers found it impossible to compete.

Miami-Dade's tomato farmers, who saw profits of up to $1,925 per acre in the mid 1990s, endured per acre losses of over $1,000 last season. Potato acreage has shrunk by half since 1997, and nine of the county's 11 potato farmers have abandoned ship. Hurricane Andrew and NAFTA claimed the mango industry. Citrus canker all but finished off the limes.

When the cost of harvesting crops began to outweigh returns, many of South Dade's fields sat fallow, or full of rotting, unpicked vegetables. Some 22,000 acres of the region's farm fields sit unused or unpicked. Increasing numbers of potato, mango, tomato and corn growers have left farming, and fewer young farmers are taking their place.

''After Andrew, Mexico came and ran us out of the market,'' said Tom Mitchell, once a leading mango grower whose great-grandmother planted her first grove in Dade in 1896. ''We fought NAFTA four years. Finally we decided it just was no use.''

Still, some sectors of South Dade agriculture are thriving. Snap beans replaced tomatoes as the region's most important vegetable, generating revenue of $78.3 million two years ago. Squash production has quadrupled since 1980. The nursery industry is cresting: Miami-Dade sold $790 million worth of trees and foliage in 2000, the second-highest county value for nurseries in the state.

''I've been hearing for 30 years that agriculture is in decline,'' Probinsky said. ''Those who like to paint a negative picture own large tracts of land, and want to blame environmentalists and NAFTA for selling out.''


Most of South Dade's agricultural land lies east of the Everglades, and west of Homestead, in an area known as the Redland.

The Redland sits beyond the Urban Development Boundary, or UDB, a line drawn by county officials in 1974 to stall development's steady encroachment on the Everglades.

Outside of the UDB, the bulk of the land is zoned for agricultural use, which allows a maximum of one house per five acres. Development, however, is allowed on property bought outside the UDB before 1974.

''We really can't stop the [grandfathered plots] from developing,'' said Donald Krug, a principal planner with Miami-Dade County's Department of Planning and Zoning. ''There are houses popping up all the time.''

Developers can petition the county commission to move the UDB every two years, a change that requires a commission vote of 9 out of 13. The county commission recently voted to widen the UDB to accommodate Codina Development Corp.'s 436-acre Beacon Lakes industrial park on a previously protected, though neglected, wetland north of the Redland.

The bulk of the land outside of South Dade's UDB is zoned for agriculture, meaning that without grandfathered rights, it can only be sold for agricultural use. Most of the region's large farmers vehemently oppose this rule.

''I love what I do, but if I go broke, I don't want to be restricted,'' Algers said. Three-quarters of his land sits outside the UDB. ''They're creating different things that end up devaluing my land.''

Fearful that the county will give in further to urban pressures, a contingent of the Redland's community activists, nursery and ornamental farmers have been pushing to incorporate 43,000 acres of the Redland. Incorporation would wrest control of the Redland from the county, give it to locals and, because the majority of Redland growers run small farms, likely keep development at bay.

''A lot of people in agriculture think they're going to sell the land and retire rich to somewhere else,'' said Steve Garrison, a retired police chief who has run the 40-acre Almond Tree Nursery since 1982. ''I'm here for the duration. I don't want subdivisions in my neighborhood.''

Environmentalists have sided with the smaller growers. Compared to development, they say, farming is the best neighbor the Everglades can have.

''Farming is compatible with the park next door,'' said Alan Farago of Friends of the Everglades. While agricultural runoff is a concern, Farago said paved lots present a far greater threat. ''If you look at the historical record, we're fighting a pretty desperate battle for the last open space in Dade County.'''

Small farmers see incorporation as a protection against development. Opponents of incorporation formed Citizens Against Redland Incorporation, or CARI, a group headed by Bill Losner, president of First National Bank of South Florida, and backed by the bulk of the region's large farmers.

''The people that want to incorporate don't seem to understand agriculture,'' said David Kaplan, president of the Dade County Farm Bureau, which supports CARI. ''If agriculture can't use it, and it's not profitable for agriculture to use it, you have to use that land somehow.''

The Redland activists' push for a county commission vote on incorporation sputtered last fall, but County Commissioner Katy Sorenson said the the commission will revisit the issue.

''I've fought other battles and won,'' said Sorenson. ''The people who live in the Redland are overwhelmingly in favor of keeping rural.''

Sorenson is urging money-losing farmers to switch to more lucrative crops, like trees or ornamentals, even though there is evidence those niches are approaching saturation.

As for larger growers' complaints about restrictions on zoning changes, Sorenson is dismissive.

''It's like saying the stock market isn't fair,'' she said. ''They speculated on that land a long time ago. No one owes them.''


Steven Borek Jr. does not need a report to tell him his prospects for farming potatoes in Miami-Dade are dim.

He cannot pull his tractors onto the road without impatient drivers honking their horns or flipping him the bird. The Biscayne Point subdivision, filled with zero lot-line powder-pink houses and the occasional burst of landscaped color, abuts the eastern border of his and his mother's 15-acre parcel, occupying land Borek's uncles used to farm.

The Boreks stopped packing crops in their yard after the houses went up, for fear of disturbing the neighbors. Another subdivision pushes against their western wall.

Farming is all he's known, and a link to his father, who died in a truck crash in 1980, when Steve and his brother, Michael, now 24, were toddlers.

After her husband's death, Teena Borek, a Newfoundlander, learned the ropes of farming. Her sons spent one Christmas morning blanketing the crops to stave off frost. Steven hitched a homemade irrigator to his toy tractor when he was four.

Like many large farmers in Miami-Dade, the Boreks farm land they own and land they lease. In the mid-1980s, they grew crops on more than 900 acres of rented land.

But NAFTA's effects whittled their tomato production from 100 acres to 10. The grocery chain they sold produce to was bought by Whole Foods, which had its own suppliers. Encroaching development thrust rental rates skyward, and today they lease just 300 acres beyond the 15 they own.

The land they lease is in trouble. Last year they left 40 acres of corn and tomatoes unharvested because expenses surpassed revenue.

''It's different when you're dealing with natural elements,'' Teena Borek, 54, said. ''But we are no longer dealing with natural elements; we're no longer dealing with fair markets.''

Robert Degner, who headed the University of Florida report, said if the county wants to save large farms, it must consider subsidies. To fend off development, he said, the county also needs to buy fallow fields and development rights, as Suffolk County, N.Y., did, and lease it back to farmers at lower rates.

''My gut feeling is that the county is very supportive of trying to maintain agriculture,'' he said. ''But it's more than just the farmers that wish for some conversions. It's real-estate developers. The urban pressures are intense.''

Meanwhile, South Dade's row croppers are gearing up for fall planting.

Larry Dunagan, one of the county's three remaining pole-bean farmers, wants to stay in farming as long as it pays the bills. ''The land is the goose that lays the golden egg,'' he said. ''Development and farming are like oil and water; they don't mix. But if I can't make it farming my land, how can somebody else?''

While Teena Borek frets over the books, her eldest son remains intent on cultivating the land. In four or five years, he guesses he will be in Immokalee or Okeechobee.

''I'd like to get into potatoes, but the land is disappearing,'' Borek said. ''I don't think I'll be able to finish my lifetime farming in Dade County.'