January 13, 2012

11 Min Read
<p> RICK ROTH leads one of the most diversified farming operations in Florida. Roth Farms produces sugar cane, radishes, lettuce and leafy vegetables, Chinese cabbage, parsley, sweet corn, green beans and rice, in addition to palm trees and other landscaping plants.</p>

To understand what drives Rick Roth, look at the large logo painted on the side of his 60,000 square foot state of the art packinghouse built in 2007: “Ray’s Heritage,” it proclaims to the world.

It’s a way of paying homage to his father, Ray, and honor the legacy he left for today’s diverse Roth Farms operation, located at Belle Glade, Fla.

“Dad was an amazing man,” Roth says. “He put together a farming operation that remains the core of what we’re doing now — but what he meant to me, and to the business, and to this community is so much more than that.

“He didn’t have a prejudiced bone is his body; he treated everybody the same. If you could do the job, it didn’t matter to him if you were white, black, well-educated or not. His long-time farm manager, Junior Smith, was the only black farm manager in this area, even though he had only a second grade education. Junior worked for us 42 years and was integral to our long-term success.

“One of our best crop years was the year Dad passed away, but Junior and all the employees said, ‘We have to do our best for the boss man.’ Junior was a great leader. He had common sense and mechanical ability, and was able to take inexperienced new hires and encourage, inspire and train them to be on his team, working together.”

Ray’s emphasis on teamwork paid off.

“Dad made sure employees knew that what we were interested in is doing a good job. He asked them to give  an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. He admitted that he didn’t have all the good ideas; he listened to what employees had to say. It’s the idea that’s important — it doesn’t matter where it originates. Good ideas should be shared.”

Roth continued that approach after his father’s death in 1986.

“Dad taught me honesty, the value of hard work, and how to treat people,” he says. “He had a unique way of looking at things. He often told me, ‘Take care of your employees. You need them — you can’t do it all by yourself.’ He said the tractor driver in the field has a better idea of what can improve tractor efficiency in that field that day than the boss sitting in a pickup truck at the end of the field. He was right.”

Now 59 years old and a former Florida Farm Bureau vice president for 10 years, Roth leads one of the most diversified farming operations in the state. Roth Farms produces sugar cane, radishes, lettuce and leafy vegetables, Chinese cabbage, parsley, sweet corn, green beans and rice, in addition to palm trees and other landscaping plants.

The emphasis on diversificationis another business trait inherited from the farm’s founder.

“We still continue to grow pretty much the same vegetables they did in Ohio. He was a very successful lettuce and radish grower, in particular,” Roth says.

Ray, born in 1924, grew up on a small truck vegetable farm located in what is now downtown Cleveland, Ohio. After serving in the U.S. Army in World War II, Ray came home with dreams of helping his dad expand their operation. But, it became apparent that would be difficult in the Cleveland area.

“He saw an ad in a farm magazine for land for rent in Belle Glade, Fla.,” Roth says. “He showed it to his dad, who looked at it in amazement, and said, ‘I know that farmer — he’s from Cleveland and I see him at the farmers market all the time.’ They made a deal with the guy to rent 100 acres.

“So, in 1948, Dad came down here with a pickup truck, a one-row vegetable planter, and his dog. Five years later, they sold out in Ohio and everybody moved to Belle Glade. In 1955, he bought his first land, 110 acres. In 1962, he bought another 1,666 acres when he and several other business men collectively bought 10,000-plus acres called Gladeview. Then we bought more in the 1970’s, 1980s and 1990s.”

The fertile muck soil at the southern end of Lake Okeechobee helped make farmers here the nation’s top producers of winter vegetables. The Roths took advantage of the soil’s natural ability to produce great radishes, which require a lot of nitrogen.

“This soil is 80 percent nitrogen,” he says. “It’s totally non-abrasive — a very soft, talcum powder kind of soil, that’s perfect for growing and harvesting radishes mechanically. Radishes still make good economic sense: they’re a 30-day crop and they’re good in rotation with other crops.”

Even so, economics and competition with other crops have reduced the ranks of the area’s radish growers.

“From November through May, 80 percent of the radishes produced come from three farming operations right here in Belle Glade,” Roth says.

He is quick to point to sugar cane as the area’s key crop.

“The sugar industry is the linchpin to the vegetable industry. Sugar cane is 80 percent of the land use in the Everglades Agricultural Area.

“Because of its agronomic needs, inputs and the way it grows, sugar cane has almost no impact on the environment. The runoff of phosphorus from cane fields is almost zero. That means we can grow other crops with higher runoffs and still meet crazy low phosphorus standards.

“There is no soil erosion with sugar cane. It gets 12 feet tall. After a three-inch rain, water just sits there in the field. With lettuce, green beans and radishes, if you don’t get a two-inch rain off the field in less than 24 hours, there will be significant crop loss.”

Cane uses 20 times less phosphorus than some vegetable crops on an annual basis, Roth notes. “Cane is a really good best management practice for vegetable producers. There are a lot of reasons that growing cane and vegetables in rotation naturally makes a farmer better at both.

“The entire agricultural industry here worked with the South Florida Water Management District to develop a matrix of best management practices for the mandatory best management practices program to control phosphorus runoff from the farms. There are a multitude of practices that can keep nutrients on the farm, but cane is No. 1.”

Roth is aware that environmentalists from coast to coast keep an eye on farms like his, poised on the rim of the Everglades. Having grown up here, he says he wants as much as anyone to see the Everglades healthy and thriving.

He reminds people every time he can that the problem is more hydro-period than runoff.

“Everglades National Park has never received water with concentration of phosphorous above 10 parts per billion. Remember, clean rain according to the South Florida Water Management District is 38 parts per billion.”

The Everglades Agricultural Areadesignation dates back to 1948 when the South Florida Flood Control Project (now the South Florida Water Management District) conceived an extensive network of canals and pumping stations to control water flows in the region. Today, the Everglades Agricultural Area covers about 700,000 acres, around 27 percent of the original Everglades area.

The rich muck soil long ago tempted developers to drain the water and make land available for farming and towns. Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, elected governor in 1904, campaigned on a platform of draining the Everglades. After his election, a land boom ensued, not only in the Glades but also in all of south Florida.

When a 1928 hurricane resulted in as many as 3,000 deaths around Lake Okeechobee, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the Hoover Dike to control the big lake’s water. That effectively stopped the age-old natural flow of water into the Everglades and opened up more land for farming.

The dike and canal system and soil subsidence make restoring the Everglades to its original natural state an impossible task. Yet many environmentalists want to do just that, and focus their ire on the area’s farmers.

“Their goal is conservation (public ownership), not Everglades restoration and improvements,” Roth says. “So they will never be satisfied — not even after 15 years of 55 percent reduction of phosphorus in our runoff, and water twice as clean as the irrigation water we get from Lake Okeechobee.”

The Everglades restoration issue has dominated much of Roth’s time and thinking during his farming career. Though frustrating, he says it has one upside: creating unity among the area’s farmers.

“The only way we could survive since 1988, with the rabid environmentalists after us to take our land out of production, is by sticking together. In the 23 years since then, the whole culture of farming here changed. We all do things a little differently, but we share information with other farmers. We’re in this thing together — we’re pooling resources and ideas; we’re solving problems together.”

Farmers in the Everglades Agricultural Area lobbied for and helped create the Everglades Agricultural Area Environmental Protection District in 1990. Each farmer has one vote per acre farmed and pays $5 per acre per year assessment for funding. They fund research to solve phosphorus runoff problems.

In 1994, farmers lobbied for the passageof the Everglades Forever Act, which created a mandatory Best management practices program and a $25 per acre Agriculture Privilege Tax, which doubles farmers property taxes until 2016. 

The South Florida Water Management District has since built and maintains 40,000 acres of stormwater treatment areas on land bought from the farmers and designed to clean nutrients from the runoff.

“Dealing with all of this can get frustrating,” Roth says, “but the neat thing that has come out of it is that we’re working together — we’re doing something a lot of farmers don’t do, which is trust each other. We’ve quit seeing other farmers as competition. If adversity doesn’t kill you, it’ll make you a better person. It’s the struggle that makes you better.”

In the Everglades political struggle, area farmers determined that certain things can’t be sacrificed.

“Diversity and crop rotation are the secret to success here, so we can’t give up crops,” Roth says, “The No. 1 rule for our best management practices is that we can’t give up yield for reduced fertilizer runoff. We just can’t go down that road.

“Increased yields, lower inputs and crop diversity are how we must run our farms to stay in business. We told the regulators to give us choices — don’t tell us how to farm and which crops to grow.  Regulators set standards for businesses to meet, but farmers must decide how to farm to meet the standards.”

Innovation keeps farmers like him in business, Roth says.

“We’ve managed to survive withbasically the same prices for vegetables and sugar over the past 20 years. Only now have rising commodity and food prices been a concern for the American consumer.

“How have we done it? With increased yields, lower input costs, better marketing and vertical integration. The majority of what we produce here in the Everglades Agricultural Area is retail packed, either here or by companies we own closer to the market.”

Pointing out the marvels of the Ray’s Heritage packinghouse — an Odenburg mechanical grading machine that puffs air to reject off-color radishes, a hydro-cooling system running on ammonia and glycol, cooling vegetables down to 36 degrees, and a computer system managing even the smallest details online — Roth says family remains at the heart of the business.

Ryan, his son, now manages the entire lettuce operation and all crop protection applications. His brother-in-law Dennis LeCroy, is the farm manager, focusing on equipment, land management, crop rotation, water control and radish harvesting.

Roth partners in the packinghouse with his two sisters and Buddy McKinstry,  who grows sweet corn  and green beans for the Jem-Roth joint venture, and other crops for himself.

“My dad didn’t believe in partnerships, and I understand better today why,” Roth says. “Partners don’t always agree, so some projects get delayed.

“But when Buddy and I started this project, I knew he was the right partner. We had the same vision and plan for how to succeed. Our methods may be different sometimes, but we are fully committed to making it work. And what really makes it work is that he is a great farmer and brings different knowledge and skills to the table.

“The secret to being a sustainable agricultural operation is having family members who love the business and are willing to work hard. You can’t employ family members just because they’re family members.

“My dad hired Dennis in 1981 and he started as a radish harvester operator. Like most good farmers, Dennis loves his farm equipment. If we want to try something different, we count on Dennis to find or design what we need.

“Ryan loves vegetable farming. We gave him the opportunity to revamp our lettuce and leafy vegetable operation right from the start, and he has made significant yield and quality improvements every year since he started in 2005. Like his dad and granddad, he loves the challenge of growing a new crop, and doing it better.”

Roth pauses to show a photo of a two-year-old boy wearing overalls, a white shirt and an odd little hat, walking beside a trim man also wearing a hat and working with a one-row vegetable planter. The man is looking down at the child, who is striding determinedly onward.

It’s a photo of Roth’s father, Ray, and his grandfather, shot on the Ohio farm in 1926.

“Look at that little guy,” Roth says. “He was loving being out there on the farm, even then. That’s my heritage — working on the farm with your father, side by side, not following behind.”

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