TCPalm: Farmers are 'ever-shrinking minority' fighting to stay relevant in Florida

Article Posted on July 26, 2018

By: Eve Samples, Treasure Coast Newspapers

There's a natural division of labor on the small farm Carl Frost and his wife own 17 miles east of Lake Okeechobee.

Frost, with his real-estate background, is the property manager.

His wife, retired flight attendant Diane Cordeau, is the grower.

Together, they cultivate about 80 different crops, most requiring care that industrial-scale farms can't provide.

The broccolini must be hand-cut daily. The black-eyed peas are visually inspected for ripeness, then hand-picked. The frisée and watermelon radishes are labors of love.

It's fitting that the couple's venture, Kai-Kai Farm, was built on 40 acres of former citrus groves. Their approach to agriculture reflects the broader reimagining of farming in Florida.

"We don't use a lot of fertilizer, so things grow slower," Frost says. "Our food costs are much higher than a lot of high-volume, high-production farms."

But the taste is better, he promises, proving it with a bite of ripe, raw okra.

Frost laments the country's agriculture system is set up to benefit the biggest global corporations. He also mourns the disease-driven decline of the citrus industry in Florida.

“It saddens me. I grew up here, so I recall fruit stands proliferated on the coasts for all the tourists," says Frost, who was raised in northern Palm Beach County. "Now there’s just a handful left.”

He and Cordeau are innovating to stay relevant.

Kai-Kai's success is heavily dependent on "value added" offerings: farm-to-table dinners; live music at the farm; premium prices from chefs who want local produce on their menus.

Frost and Cordeau are clearing their own path in the state's "agri-tourism" sector, a hybrid industry that combines hospitality and farming. They host weddings at Kai-Kai, and Frost is devising plans for a commercial kitchen and cooking classes.

He wishes more politicians were talking about food policy this election year — especially its impact on small farmers.

“The fact of the matter is a lot of the lobbyists in Washington represent companies that are global,” Frost says.

Decades of federal agriculture policy have incentivized consolidation. Even as "eating local" has become fashionable, Frost has found it difficult to compete with the price of tomatoes from Mexico, for example.

“Do we really want to export all our farm production to foreign countries? I don’t think that’s a really good idea," he says. "Food security is one of those little issues that needs to be more important.”

At the local level, he hopes leaders will begin to think proactively about recycling food waste and creating more hospitable green markets.

"I've been in third-world countries that have far better green-market facilities than we provide for farmers in a place like Florida," Frost says. "It's just shameful that we have to set up in a parking lot to sell produce."

Before he and Codreau opened the farm, Frost paid only casual attention to politics.

“I was kind of apolitical, probably like a lot of people — just bumbling along, voted but didn’t get too personally committed to anything," he says.

Becoming a farmer meant following politics was no longer optional…

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