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.

Salad > Hamburger

For the past few years I've been asking myself this question; why is a salad more expensive than a hamburger? It's illogical. At McDonald's you can buy a salad for about $5.50 or a hamburger for $1.00. You can even buy a fancy big mac or whatever for $2 or $3. How is this possible? A cow requires more feed than do some lettuce and vegetables, vegetables don't need to be slaughtered, sterilized, frozen, cooked, given antibiotics, etcetera. Basically, I'm arguing that it is simpler to make a salad than it is to make a hamburger.

Well, I had some loose ideas why this situation exists, but now I think I fully grasp the variables at play. My explanation comes from the documentary King Corn. Brief rundown of the movie; two guys move to Iowa, rent an acre of farmland, live with a farmer, plant corn, go around learning what happens to corn after it's harvested, find out almost all of it goes to feeding animals, realize their corn isn't edible, harvest said corn, lose money, and get close to breaking even because of government subsidies.

Let me first start with subsidies. An agricultural subsidy is essentially a financial incentive given by the government to farmers in an effort to change the behavior of the farmers. Carrot = subsidy; horse = farmer. Here's what a subsidy does to an agricultural good, in this case corn:

First, farmers grow more corn because they know that they'll get money from the government to do so. In the movie it was $28 dollars an acre. The actual commodity price they received for their 180 bushels of corn was about $300. Anyways, once the supply curve shifts to the right (increases) you can see that price drops from P1 to P2 and quantity increases from Q1 to Q2. The true market equilibrium is disrupted in favor of an artificial one brought about vies a vie a subsidy that produces more corn.

Prior to the 1970's this meant the government paid farmers to leave fields fallow in an effort to keep commodity/food prices high. They still do this in some cases. The whole system is mind bogglingly complex. Then Earl Buntz came along and told farmers to "get big or get out [and] plant hedgerow to hedgerow." In response farms got huge, small and medium sized farms got pushed out (which is fine it's a natural trend within the market), and food got a lot cheaper. So what's the catch?

Corn got crazy cheap, yields skyrocketed, and now it's in absolutely everything. Over 95% of the corn you've ever seen is completely inedible in its raw state. About half goes to livestock feed, a quarter goes to ethanol production, about a fifth is exported, and a mere 4% is used to make high fructose corn syrup. Which is crazy that that percentage is so small because it's in just about every packaged food and is the main ingredient in soft drinks.

So again, half of all corn is used as feed grain. It used to be the case that cows lived on open grass pastures and ate grass. Now cows are raised that way for the first half of their lives then put in confinement so that they fatten up quickly. During this time they're fed a grain (read: mostly corn) diet. This diet would literally kill the cow if it weren't for the fact that they're slaughtered after about 120-140 days after starting this process. This practice leads to beef that is three times higher in fat and contains less omega-3 fat (a hard to get essential fatty acid). So, more saturated fat and less omega-3; not good. There are a number of other reasons farming cows this way is illogical but you get the point. Bad for you, bad for the cow, and as I'm about to show, bad for your wallet.

So why is a salad more expensive than a hamburger? Because the meat industry is huge (read: efficient) and feeding cows is cheap because of subsidized corn and grain. Farmland that could be used to grow other crops that humans can actually consume ends up as acreage for feed corn. Hence, the price of other vegetables is artificially raised because there is less land to produce it on. The end result is a lot of beef that isn't good for you, cheap ubiquitous soft drinks, high vegetable prices, cheap McDonald's meals, and fat Americans. It's also worth mentioning that subsidies imply a certain degree of inefficiency. The reasoning goes that the government gets its money from you, the taxpayer, so in giving the farmers money to grow something that wouldn't otherwise be profitable they are in fact distorting economic signals.

My solution? Simple - slowly end the subsidies. Let the market decide what it wants and at what prices. It would also mean less bureaucracy.

Side note: ending farm subsidies would make agriculture in the US more of a truly "perfect competition" situation which is really exciting... to me.

Soilless Basil/Lettuce Garden

Here's a project I finally completed yesterday. On the left you can see my 2' square hydroponic basil and lettuce garden. It's pretty simple. Water is pumped from the 15 gallon reservoir (that black Rubbermaid container) into that white ebb and flow tray for about 15 minutes every hour. Lighting is provided by my north facing window (weakest light of any direction, boo) and a 2' strip of high output T5 florescents for 18 hours a day. I also set up some white construction board to help with light reflectivity.

Here you can see the plants in their growing medium which is called hydroton. It's basically just lightweight baked clay; expanded terracotta sort of. The green stuff is rockwool (fiberglass insulation without the flame retardant) that I used to start the seedlings. I'm growing: Italian large leaf basil, summer long basil, purple ruffles basil, spicy saber basil, little caesar lettuce, butter crunch lettuce, and burgundy ice lettuce.

This is the plant's food. It's supposedly the same stuff NASA uses in all their hydroponic research.

This is one of my purple basil plants. This is the plant I'm most excited for.


I just find this interesting, it has nothing to do with anything other than the fact that I happen to like plants, especially vine plants. Bines too.

  • Vanilla beans, actually seed pods, are derived from the vanilla orchid which grows as a vine. Great pictures of the whole process here.
  • Although there are 110-150 species of vanilla orchid, only two are grown commercially. The Mexican or Bourbon (they're really similar) vanilla plant is native to the Atlantic side of Mexico while the Tahitian vanilla plant is either a mutation or hybrid of the Mexican vanilla plant that occurred in the last 50 or 60 years.
  • The bloom of a vanilla orchid only opens for one day. If it hasn't been pollinated then it drops and will not produce a bean.
  • The seeds of a vanilla pod or really any orchid will not germinate (sprout and grow) without the presence of a certain fungi, mycorrhiza. Orchid seeds have almost no stored nutrition so the seed and fungi form a symbiotic relationship whereby the orchid obtains carbon from the fungi.
  • Although orchids are self pollinating the flower can only be pollinated in the presence of a specific stingless bee, the Melipona, native only to Mexico and parts of South America. Because of this the beans must be hand pollinated as most beans are grown outside of Mexico. This is what makes vanilla so labor intensive and expensive.
  • Almost all vanilla plants are cultivated within 10 or 20 degrees of the equator with the world's largest producer being Madagascar.
  • Once pollinated the pod takes 9 months to mature.
  • Each vanilla plant will produce about 50-100 blooms per year, but only 5 or 6 flowers out of about 20 on each raceme (single vine) of these are pollinated to ensure higher quality.
  • Vanilla plants remain productive for 12-14 years but take at least 2-3 years to become productive.
  • About 97% of all vanilla that is consumed is synthetic. Which is scary because although vanilla can be synthesized in many ways (even from cow dung) presently it is usually made from guaiacol, a petrochemical.