The Hodge Farms in Newberry is traditional is some ways including being family-run through four generations and still growing tobacco, as it has since Ease Hodge founded it in 1919.
But, it’s also innovative in many ways, keeping up as new crop varieties continue to provide potential profits and the economics of agriculture continue to change.
“We’ve done well at adopting high-value crops and finding a way to make them as profitable as possible,” said Mark Hodge, one of five family members involved in the 1,500-acre spread.
Blueberries are the newest crop at the farm; the family now farms 60 acres of them.
“The gross revenue from blueberries can be 20 times higher than for grazing cattle,” Hodge said.
Another innovation is that the Hodges grow Dulcinea PureHeart seedless watermelon. This relatively new variety is exceptionally sweet with a thin rind — and it brings a premium price.
Along with the high payoff comes more work. The melons are refrigerated as soon as they are picked and then packed in boxes that protect the thin rinds from damage.
The Hodge family illustrates the flexibility that’s needed to compete in a changing agricultural world.
Many Influences on Economics
Many factors ranging from local land values to global demand for crops affect today’s farmers and ranchers, said John Roberts, vice president for commercial banking at Community Bank and Trust of Florida.
The high demand for land from people seeking a home in the country has pushed up land prices in Alachua County. Land in outlying counties costs considerably less, Roberts noted.
Comparable farmland that is not irrigated sells for $2,000 to $4,000 an acre in outlying counties but can cost as much more in Alachua County, Roberts said.
“A number of farmers and investors in agriculture own land in other counties but live in Gainesville,” Roberts said.
Among the investors is Neal Anderson, former star running back for the Florida Gators and the Chicago Bears.
Anderson and his attorney, Steve Rappenecker, own a 2,500-acre peanut farm south of Williston. Anderson, who is from Graceville, Fla., was familiar with peanut farming because his father worked in a peanut processing plant.
“We started with 360 acres in 1985, and it’s worked out really well,” Anderson said. “Andy and Scott Robinson run the farm, and we’re smart enough to let them handle it.”
Economic conditions elsewhere in the nation influence local agriculture, said Zak Seymour, senior commercial credit analyst for the Farm Credit of Florida office in Alachua.
Beef prices are high because ranchers have reduced their herds due to the drought in the west. People in North Central Florida are investing in cattle now.
“Nationally, the herds are lower than they’ve been since the 1960s,” he said. “Florida is in a good position for beef to be profitable, with the high availability of pasture and feed.”
Abundance of Partners
Partnerships help Alachua County farmers adapt to change.
The University of Florida is one of those partners. UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences provides information through workshops and “short courses,” research publications and hands-on advice.
“Alachua County is a great place is access knowledge,” said Gail Hodge of the Hodge Farms.
Another partner is Farm Credit, one of the federally created cooperatives that are similar to credit unions. “
Their loan officers understand the ag industry, and they were willing to lend money for us to go into blueberries,” Mark Hodge said.
Florida Farm Bureau is another partner. The organization, located in Gainesville, helps farmers in many ways including advocating for beneficial legislation and policies.
“(We) serve farm families by sponsoring educational programs that enhance leadership, marketing and natural resource conservation skills,” said G.B. Crawford, Farm Bureau’s director of public relations.
Responding to Change
One of the most influential persons helping Florida agriculture adapt to change is Alto Straughn, a member of the Florida Agriculture Hall of Fame. He has worn several hats as an agricultural leader, including farmer, educator and researcher.
As a farmer, Straughn and his family grow blueberries, watermelons and other crops on more than 3,000 acres of land in areas located near Waldo, Windsor and Archer.
As an educator, he worked first as an agent with UF/IFAS Extension, an outreach program with offices in each county of the state. He then became assistant director of Extension.
Although he retired from his UF position in 1989, he still advises farmers throughout the state. The Straughn IFAS Extension Development Center in Gainesville, which he and his wife, Patrecia, helped fund, is a busy training center.
As a researcher, Straughn has worked closely with UF/IFAS to develop new varieties of blueberries and watermelon as well as improved farming practices.
At 80, Straughn is still very active in farming and research. The latest growing technique he is trying is hoophouse production, a technique for growing crops under tall metal hoops covered with plastic. The incoming solar heat warms the plants, providing for a longer growing season.
“Most of Florida farmers have to change all the time to survive,” Straughn said. “You have to adapt as markets and the economics of production change.”
One thing that farmers can’t change is the weather, which plays a big role in the profitability of farming. Although blueberries farmers generally make good money on their production early in the season, some didn’t fare well this year due to berries being two weeks late, Straughn said.
“We had a cold snap in January that made the bees that do the pollination sluggish, and we had heavy rains at the wrong time,” he said.