With a warm climate, adequate water supply and cropping expertise of a large labor force, the Southeast seems ideally poised to become a major fruit and vegetable growing center in the U.S.
But labor shortages, unstable weather patterns and the introduction of new insect pests are major roadblocks to overcome.
Veteran Clemson University Extension AssociatePowell Smith says South Carolina is a microcosm of vegetable and fruit potential in the Southeast that is being held back by these three factors.
Among producing states, California produces more than 40 percent of all the vegetables grown in the U.S.
Florida and Georgia are both in the top five and North Carolina is the next largest vegetable producing state in the Southeast.
Perhaps the most telling factor in growth of the industry in the Southeast is a look at planted acres versus harvested area over the past three years.
In Florida in 2010, 190,100 acres were planted and 176,500 harvested. In 2012, 201,000 acres were planted and 186,700 acres were harvested.
Regardless of the size of the planted crop, each state reports annually a loss of 10-15 percent of acres from planting time to harvest. Losing that percentage of a crop annually from the time vegetables are planted until they are harvested, processed and sold makes expansion challenging at best.
Labor is absolutely critical to vegetable production and can be just as critical during fruit harvest seasons. Currently, labor, across all agricultural production, is uncertain at best.
Smith says it is understandably difficult for a grower to invest the money necessary to plant a high value vegetable crop without the certainty that he or she will have the labor needed to grow it, and more importantly harvest it.
“The biggest cost in most vegetable production comes at harvest time. If you need 175 laborers to pick your crop in a relatively short time period, and you can only come up with 100, you’ve got yourself a big economic problem,” he says.
Consider foreign labor unskilled
He also points out that most people outside of agriculture consider foreign labor, whether they be from Mexico or Guatemala or even farther away places, like Haiti, to be unskilled. Yet, if you look at time and motion studies done with migrant labor, you will find these people are highly skilled at what they do, he adds.
“Another misconception is that we can just take people out of prison or off welfare rolls and put them to work doing this on-farm, unskilled labor. That just won’t work, because the forced labor doesn’t want to work, and they don’t have the skills necessary to be efficient in on-farm labor.
“For most South Carolina vegetable and fruit growers the Federal H-2A program isn’t feasible. Smaller acreage operations, growing seasonal crops are just not set up to handle all the guidelines set forth in H-2A programs. Plus, the cost isn’t feasible in most small operations,” Smith says.
“When you add to the mix a series of truly unpredictable weather patterns over the past few years, it just heightens the other production problems we see in fruit and vegetable production.
“And, weather plays a significant role in limiting the expansion we would like to see in fruit and vegetable production in South Carolina and throughout the Southeast,” he adds.
For example, last year March was warmer than May. Though the drought situation as a whole has not been as severe as the past two years in the Midwest and Southwest, drought periods at the wrong time in vegetable production is a real limiting factor in production, as it is in all agricultural crops.
“This year we had collardsbolting in late February —t hat’s earlier than anyone that I know has ever seen that.
“Typically, we see collards in South Carolina bolt in March. When you have a crop that matures early you tend to have more production problems and often there is no market for these early maturing vegetables,” the Clemson Specialist says.
Labor problems in agriculture are not new and weather has plagued farming since the first crop was planted centuries ago.
The third limiting factor in the growth of the fruit and vegetable industry in the Southeast in general and South Carolina in particular is not old, but may be even more challenging to manage.
The introduction into the Southeast over the past few years of new insect pests from countries thousands of miles away are playing havoc with production and are clearly a consideration when a grower thinks about expanding production, much less when a new grower tries to determine whether he or she should get into the fruit and vegetable business.
The kudzu bug and the brown marmorated stink bug have gotten a lot of attention in the farm and public media in recent years.
These pests may prove to be major problems in vegetable production in the years to come, but today the spotted wing drosophila, a recent import to the Southeast, has gotten the attention of fruit growers up and down the East Coast.
The spotted wing Drosophila (SWD) is native to Southeast Asia. It was detected in Japan in 1916, in Hawaii in the 1980s, and in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. by the mid 2000s.
In 2010, it was first documented in the Southeast and has been on the increase in terms of numbers and in the damage it causes to fruit in the region for the past two years.
Hannah Burrack, a small fruit entomologist at North Carolina State University says, “Spotted wing drosophila is an invasive pest of soft skinned fruit, which in the southeastern United States includes blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries. Wholesalers and marketers have zero tolerance for SWD in fresh market fruit.”
The African fig fly is another threat that so far has only been a potential concern for Southeast fruit growers, but one that could become a major insect pest in coming years. It is, as the name implies, native to Africa.
“This is a very distinctive, almost beautiful insect in the adult form, that’s probably why we began to notice it when it showed up sporadically in our traps,” Smith says.
“So far it’s been found mostly on damaged fruit and unlike the spotted wing Drosophila, it has not been a problem on fruit that is actively growing,” he adds.
In the Southeast this pest was first detected in Florida in 2005. It has now been reported in most Southeast states and as far north as Michigan and Pennsylvania and as far west as Texas.
It has the potential to damage blueberries, blackberries, strawberries and other soft fruit grown in the Southeast.
“All these new insect pests have the potential to damage fruit and vegetable crops in the Southeast, and along with other challenges faced by commercial growers, add to the uncertainty of expanding production,” Smith says.
He adds that despite these challenges growers continue to add acreage and plant new crops. “They have certainly not been held back by the challenge, but more so by the uncertainty that labor, weather, and new pests bring to the table,” Smith adds.