Caribbean-Americans returning to farming lifestyle in South Florida

Al Fearson on his calalloo farm

While the national Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association reports a steady decline in minority-owned farms farmers in Florida, a new breed of Caribbean-American farmers has been expanding in South Florida. Thanks to rising demand in the region for traditional Caribbean produce, many have opted to go back to the land to fill the void in the market.

That the story of Elliot Reynolds, who with his brothers own and operate a 56-acre farm in the Redlands, Southwest Miami. They found that with thousands of Caribbean migrants living in South Florida, and lots of land available in the region, “in recent years more Caribbean American farmers are operating farms growing produce similar to that grown in the Caribbean,” said Reynolds.

Their farm specializes in growing strawberries, assorted green vegetables and tomatoes, but also grows large acres of popular Caribbean ingredients such as scotch-bonnet peppers and callaloo. Farming callaloo was not quite what Reynolds pictured when he migrated from Jamaica to Florida 21 years ago. He knew little about farming, but living in Southwest Miami he saw an “array of farms in places like the Redlands and Homestead, and I decided to give up my white collar job, bought the land and began to operate the farm.”

He admits farming is hard work, but finds it profitable, as there’s “constant demand for fruits and vegetables by middlemen who supply the big supermarkets.”

Operating on a smaller scale, Jamaican-born Al Fearon owns and runs a five-acre farm in West Davie, where he grows callaloo – a profitable product reliable marketable to several local Jamaican grocery stores.

But replicating some of the familiar flavors for the Caribbean-American market, says Fearson, has proven tricky. He initially planned to grow produce like scotch bonnet peppers, but because of South Florida’s soil and climatic conditions, these peppers noted for their peculiar flavor, “can’t be the same as those grown and imported from Jamaica.”

Dennis Martin, who owns a twenty-acre farm in Davie, has found a similar problem with his produce. He first tried his growing scotch bonnet peppers, but also found the flavor “wasn’t right compared with the peppers grown in Jamaica.” He switched to growing sour-sop, June plums, avocados and green vegetables.

“Although I have reliable market for my products, I still find the June plum and avocadoes aren’t of that rich quality grown in Jamaica,” said Martin. “If we could only import the Jamaican soil to South Florida.”

David Saunders of the Florida Department of Agriculture (FDA) – where all farmers must be licensed to operate – has certainly seen an uptick in Ccaribbean-Americans applying to operate their own farms. But “either through insufficient research or attention to farming details, some of these farms are struggling,” says Saunders.

This could be because many of the applicants “businessmen and professionals who “purchased and operate small farms to secure income-tax write off,” argues Saunders, as property owners are given property tax breaks if they farm within “greenbelts” or designated agricultural property. “But most of these owners are absentee farmers, not giving their farms undivided attention. Farms need rain, sunshine, good soil and focused attention to be productive, especially as some are subject to a variety of pests.”

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