Jun 1, 2021
J&J builds Florida vegetable operation on former citrus site

Where the Florida Turnpike and I-59 meet, a thousand sandy-soil acres of citrus orchards are being turned over for a large vegetable farm and cool storage facility.

The land near Vero Beach this fall will be planted with sweet and hot peppers, yellow squash, zucchini, cucumbers and eggplant for commercial distribution in the fourth quarter. Additionally on the property, there will be a new vegetable cooling, packing and distribution facility, a research and development facility for vegetable research and a small farm shop for the farming operation.

It’s the vision of J&J Family of Farms, a Florida-based grower, packer and shipper of vegetables and value-added products that’s a wholly-owned subsidiary of Benson Hill, a food tech company.

“That’ll give us an R&D advantage over time,” said Jim Gallagher, president of J&J. “Not necessarily right away, but the new farmland and new facility are really going to help fuel growth in our current business.”

Farm operations

The company will leverage drip irrigation, location and local expertise to build a sustainable farming operation.

Jim Gallagher“Roughly 750 acres of the new farmland will be under plastic and drip irrigation,” Gallagher said. “There will also be direct-to-plant fertilization and pest control – those are all environmentally sustainable practices.”

The citrus farm had previously been flood irrigated, and most of the citrus production had finished.

“It’s got a great location, it’s got good water, it’s nice and level, so ripping the ground, getting the trees out, fumigating, getting it so you can grow vegetables has been an enjoyable project and pretty straightforward,” Gallagher said. Switching between very different crops means “there’s not a lot of diseases that are going to impact our crop right away,” he added.

The man tasked with growing a variety of dry vegetable types on the farm is Clayton Amestoy, a fifth-generation Florida farmer.

Amestoy’s family is “familiar with the soil type and the climate,” Gallagher said. “They’ve already got the planting schedule for the fall if everything goes as scheduled. He knows exactly what we’re going to plant and grow, so weather permitting, we should have a nice crop in the fourth quarter.”

There are few challenges to the area – “the biggest issues here are weather-related,” he said – but a minor issue is that nutrients tend to leach out of the sandy soil fairly quickly, which is why precision fertigation via drip tape is preferable. The company hopes to increase water use efficiency by up to 70% and cut down energy costs by as much as 50%, according to a news release from the company.

Research ready

A new facility and ground in the area is an investment in the future of the J&J Family of Farms, as well as the many outside growers with whom it works.

Gallagher said the company is meant to develop genetic material and vegetable varieties with better consumer traits – “higher nutrition, better-tasting, potentially crispier texture.” J&J’s owner, Benson Hill, markets itself as “unlocking the natural genetic diversity of plants with its cutting-edge food innovation engine, CropOS.”

“They’d like to get into giving our growers and consumers better tasting, healthier vegetables,” Gallagher said. The research may include crops the company doesn’t grow yet.

Benson Hill said it plans to enhance
J&J’s operations with breeding and
testing sites, expanded processing and
distribution capacity and sustainability
best practices across its grower base.

“Combined with J&J’s extensive grower base, distribution network and retail relationships, which are further strengthened by today’s announcement, Benson Hill is well positioned to execute on the development and ultimately the commercialization of differentiated produce and ‘functional foods,’ with the potential to serve the growing convergence between the produce and pharmacy aisles,” the company wrote in a news release.

Logistics economics

The location will allow the J&J Family of Farms to pack vegetables from other farms it works with and other farmland it leases. In addition to the new farm and research facility, J&J announced it was
also adding roughly 1,000 acres of leased land in Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and Indiana.

“We either own or lease a percentage of our ground, but we’re very reliant on our outside grower family,” Gallagher said. “This would give us a little more control of our own land. It would be our biggest farming project for the company.”

As a shipping location, the new location is well positioned.

“With the need for more refrigerated space in the Southeast, one of the things I think we’ll be able to do is more consolidation for our customers, beyond what we grow for market,” he said. “The way that most retailers or foodservice customers buy, they would buy those dry vegetable items together from a consolidation standpoint.”

When it comes to shipping challenges, the company is willing to arrange partial loads – something that’s a challenge in the produce industry – through its trucking company, Trophy Transportation.

“The fact that we have our own transportation arranged through Trophy allows us to ship less-than-truckload orders to a variety of customers,” Gallagher said.

The new packing facility is expected to yield an ability to do more value-added products, for example, the popular “stoplight” red, yellow and green sweet peppers stacked in a narrow bag.

“A lot of our customers want both commodity and value-added, packaged (product),” Gallagher said. “Especially, as you know, with COVID hitting, there’s more demand for prepackaged clean produce.”

— Stephen Kloosterman, associate editor




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