For those of you who may not know me personally, I’m passionate about the outside world and limit my time in the digital spaces like the newly marketed “metaverse”. When teaching my children about the Earth, I take them out in our backyard, the beach or wherever we can manage to meet with the soil or water and see the brilliant design with plant and animal life interacting. This past week I was blessed to go on a field trip of my own with my peers and am attempting to share with you what I learned in this blog article.
The Why: Lake Okeechobee and the EAA in Palm Beach County
As part of my Leadership Palm Beach County (LPBC) Engage Agriculture class day this past Wednesday, we embarked on a full day of everything agricultural that can be found in the western portion of our county. The approximately 1160 square mile area to the south of Lake Okeechobee that is home to a place called the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA). It was a wonderful day put on by LPBC and their partners. Personally, it was my second time physically out there in the farm fields as the first time was when I was a high school student in 1995 and part of the Junior Leadership program (today known as Leadership Grow). It has been some 27 years later now and I was not disappointed and in fact was amazed that there was so much more for me to learn. For more information on all the Leadership Palm Beach County programs you can go to www.leadershippbc.org
If you’re not familiar with Lake Okeechobee, it’s the big blob of water that you usually see in the southern portion of Florida’s peninsula on a map. Some immediate facts about our Lake O include it being the largest lake in the southeastern U.S. and the 2nd largest freshwater one that is entirely within the boundaries of our nation. The word “Okeechobee” is a Seminole word that means “big water.” It is also sometimes referred to as “Florida’s Inland Sea” and known for its fishing and boating amenities. For anglers, the largemouth bass and speckled perch are among the favorite catches found here. If you’re not interested in going on the water, you can participate in a trail walk/run around the lake for either part or all of the 110-mile trail of a 35-foot dike that is somewhat humorously named the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail (LOST) https://floridahikes.com/tag/lake-okeechobee-scenic-trail.
Originally Lake O was saltwater and is believed to have started some 6,000 years ago. Over time rainwater replenished it and as today nearly 40% of the lake is fed by our rains and the rest from freshwater sources like the Kissimmee and Harney Pond. Notably, in the early part of the 20th century Lake O could be on average 19 feet deep but the hurricanes of the 1920s caused such heavy human and animal losses that the decision by the public and policy makers of that time and following was to redirect water from the lake and also dike up portion that usually flooded on a seasonal basis. The Herbert Hoover Dike was installed in 1928 and has since kept Lake O’s waters at bay, one of the results was the revelation that much of the soil surrounding the southern portion of the lake was rich “muck” that was a boon for farmers familiar with this “black gold”.
Since the early 1990s, the depth of the lake can hover around 9 feet and measures are taken to reduce its “height” when needed after a particularly rainy season or prior to a major hurricane event that is forecasted. Although the bottom of Lake O used to be sand, it began to transition into a state of muck as well. The presence of increased phosphorus made it challenging for many of the bottom creatures that thrived in the sandy bottom to survive, and the resulting losses in organisms and plant life rendered the organic decomposed layers (muck is a by-product)—the heavy phosphorus levels that grew over the years negatively affected snails, worms and other insects. At the same time, there are some plants that enjoy phosphorus and can include non-native species like the cattail (they look like hot dogs on a stick at the water’s edge).
Note: Thankfully we learned that our farmers in the EAA have taken great steps in the last two decades to help decrease the phosphorus levels that include participation and implementation of Best Management Practices (BMP) and University of Florida has been a great partner with this: http://www.lakeoalliance.org/everglades-agricultural-area
Palm Beach County’s Role in America’s Food Production?
One of our key issues to learn during our LPBC Engage Day was how our county participated in the food production for much of our nation east of the Mississippi River. It turns out that the signage at 20-mile bend that we took our first photo as a group at reflects the crops that are currently grown in the EAA. Among them are sugarcane, rice (yes, rice!), celery, romaine lettuce, radishes, mangoes, green beans, sweet corn and cabbage. In short, when much of our nation is in the throes of winter and early spring thaw/freezes, our EAA is supplying fresh produce in spades.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that this Leadership PBC Engage Agricultural Day was made possible by the cooperation and access granted by the family-owned businesses like Everglades Equipment Group, Wedgworth Farms, Hundley Farms, TKM Bengard Farms and Florida Crystals. Did you know that Palm Beach County continues to be the largest county that produces at least 30 types of vegetables, commercial sod and sugarcane? At least 700,000 acres benefit from organic or muck soil content.
After a few introductory speeches we boarded our bus and headed out to the farm fields that included radishes, sugar cane and romaine with other lettuce varieties. The ride itself reminded us of the soft soil composition out here in the EAA as the paved and unpaved roads have their own unique contours to them–speeding not recommended.
In the radish fields we learned that if there are radishes left in the field after the harvesting equipment has gone through then it’s because of their non-marketable size. Therefore they are re-incorporated into the soil and in essence become compost for future crops. It was fascinating to watch the operator drive the radish harvester as it picked up the radishes in their respective rows, cut off the tops and sent them backwards into a trailer that would take them to the packing house eventually.
Our romaine/lettuce field stop included hair and beard nets being handed out and worn before we could embark into an active harvest at one of TKM Bengard Farms’ fields. The smooth orchestration of the workers and the machinery assisting them was mesmerizing. Equally impressive was the outdoor conditions of windy heat combined with the newfound knowledge we had acquired about the workers’ 6 days a week schedules that yielded pay per hour several dollars less an hour than at a local Target or Walmart.
The sugarcane fields were especially enticing as we were able to gnaw on various stalks that were cut for us by Keith Wedgworth as he explained to us the process of growth, harvest and sugar mill operations—he was equally generous with his patience and time as he answered all the questions we had about this sweet crop. As we rolled away in our bus, Keith also pointed out boxes mounted on poles throughout the sugarcane field that accounted for the barn owl housing. Mice can be problematic for this crop and instead of using poisons the owls have been the natural deterrent. I learned for the first time in my life that all parts of the sugarcane are utilized: including some portion that becomes a compostable plate product called Tellus: https://www.tellusproducts.com.
We also benefitted from Florida Crystals’ Caroline Villanueva who was able to explain all the various processes that the derivatives of the sugarcane would endure after it was cut and put into trailers out of the field.
After we left the fields we were able to witness one of the mills that helps the Sugarcane Growers Co-Op process the harvest. This included our bus going through a warehouse building that housed raw sugar that was unfit for human consumption but would soon go through the necessary refinement to make it worthy and safe to eat. We may or may have not tried a few granules out of our collective insatiable curiousity about how it would taste: sweet and gritty.
Torry Island, Belle Glade and an Introduction to the area including South Bay & Pahokee
The lunch was hearty and included fresh produce from our EAA—many of us including myself enjoyed seconds of the chef’s dishes. A special thanks to Jessica Clasby and her team at the Florida Sugar Cane League for securing King’s Catering for our meal. We enjoyed a quick respite in this outdoor pavilion situated on the edge of Lake O and listened to remarks from elected representatives of Belle Glade, surrounding areas and others who served as city staff or community partners. Their introductions and speeches were refreshing as they reflected the culture of the area and they spoke to both the challenges and hopeful progress of Belle Glade, South Bay and Pahokee. For more information on the area you can check out their municipal websites: https://www.bellegladegov.com , https://www.cityofpahokee.com , https://www.southbaycity.com .
While I could say that my favorite part of the day was going out into the various farm fields physically, our post-lunch “Round Robin Stations” with representatives from businesses, farms, University of Florida’s Everglades Research and Education Center and other community partners was a priceless intellectual exercise for our diverse group. Our class was broken up into smaller segments and instructed to start at one table and then move around every several minutes as told over the microphone by one of our program chairs like Ofie Utset who also helped capture our day through photographs like some of these I’m sharing in this blog.
I’ve never participated in speed dating but this Round Robin experience reminded me of the concept. We were able to hear each person’s pitch and then our small group would ask questions that would inevitably spark discussion and debate about a particular theme or problem seeking a solution from the exchange of our ideas.
Without naming the members in my small group I can share that we found a consistent theme as we spoke with our respective speakers: it has been difficult to find motivated workers to fill in the needs of the EAA and communities therein. This is especially true when it comes to the youth growing up in the area. The consensus was that the use of technology like video games and general overuse of screen time on social media apps has taken away the hours that many children usually spent playing outside and therefore grow up unaware of the industries and issues that keep Belle Glade, South Bay and Pahokee rolling with its economy and community efforts. The other repetitive theme that came up was how so many people in the eastern side of Palm Beach County have numerous misconceptions about Belle Glade, Pahokee and South Bay. Locals here encourage those who’ve never visited this area to come out and experience the area and its culture. Annual events like Black Gold Jubilee are upcoming on the calendar and a great way to take a day trip to learn more: https://blackgoldjubilee.org
While we couldn’t find final solutions in such a short time, I do believe that these Round Robin talks helped to open up some of my classmates to how their own personal experiences could help effect change and inspire creative methods to incorporate our youth and unemployed to consider either working in the EAA’s industries or support the communities by engaging in other ways through training and employment. There is no doubt that there is benefit to teaching K-12 students about what is in their area in terms of employment opportunities to help them start to conceptualize what they would be interested in when they are of age to begin internships or apprenticeships. Lastly, I know where to go take my children to learn about fishing in Lake Okeechobee through meeting Jeffrey Willis, Jr who is giving back to the community through his fishing and outdoor recreational knowledge with his tour guide services, www.builttolast21.com
Post-Harvest, Packing House Tour
TKM Bengard Farms (http://www.tkmfarms.com) was our host for the packing house tour where we got to go inside to the heart of their packaging operations and witness first-hand the speed and efficiency demonstrated as the respective harvested produce arrived. Each crop has specific needs once it is cut from the field and romaine and other lettuce greens are the most time-sensitive. For instance, it was awe-inspiring to watch in the field when workers first picked up the produce and cored the lettuce, then placed it on a conveyer to get washed and packed and then placed into refrigerated trucks that went to the packing house for further inspection and final packaging before loaded onto ready trucks for immediate transport.
Simply walking through the large, warehouse-sized cooler gave us the true rendition of how hard every employee worked to ensure safety, cleanliness and a thorough tracking of product from its departure in the farm fields to when it was labeled, secured and packed into the trucks for transport to stores like our very own Publix grocery supermarket. If you live in Florida or in many parts of the southeastern U.S., chances are you’ve consumed farm products like sweet corn, cabbage, romaine and other salad products like pre-packaged “Fresh Attitudes” salad mix from TKM Bengard Farms grown right here in the Everglades Agricultural Area!
The Bookends of the Day: Everglades Equipment Group
The family-owned and operated Everglades Equipment Group (www.evergladesfarmequipment.com) hosted our group for our morning meet-up and breakfast and also served as our closing tour of the day with remarks from some of their team members: most significant to our hearts was hearing from Alleigh Reitz’s grandfather who gave us some background on how his family first came to the area. This included sharing that their family had initially suffered from tough losses but persevered to create their company and lasting legacy to this day of helping the EAA conduct its work today.
In addition to seeing all the big and beautiful John Deere tractors and equipment, we were introduced to an autonomous sprayer that is operated by remote control that looked similar to many consoles for video games. The random thought struck me that there is a way for some of our youth to get involved with farming operations through the very equipment that ironically keeps them away from the outdoors—their skill set may bring them back to the world that helps feed us all through this technology that is here and growing by the day. Thanks again to all those involved at Everglades Equipment Group giving us the tour and fielding our inquiries, including Alleigh Reitz, Jason Tucker and Jackson Autry.
The businesswoman in me was also pleased to see how well-rounded this particular business is with its involvement in helping the local community through charitable contributions to kids’ sports teams and other non-profits and community partners. It’s a benefit to the community and businesses alike when there is continued interaction. As needs arise in a municipality, a strong connection between the business and non-profits can find help find solutions quickly.
Philosophical Postscript for Agriculture Day
The Leadership Palm Beach County Engage current class experience is quickly coming to its completion for my 2022 cohort but I know we’ll be able to give back through helping others to have a productive and educational time when they participate in one of LPBC’s programs in the future.
I have found that at least half of this experience has been especially powerful through the connections that my classmates and I have made with each other and everyone we “engage” with during our various class days with themes like “Business Day” and “Agriculture Day”.
Standing out in the sugarcane field I had a flashback to my high school days when I was just starting to learn how to introduce myself and get to know people through dialogue and sharing experiences. Another reminder of how it helps our youth to give back to them through mentorship and programs today like Leadership PBC Grow. Like the teenager I once was, I continue to enjoy meeting new people and constantly learning about the community I reside in—my classmates have taught me more about certain sectors that I was fuzzy on and making new connections through our LPBC Engage sponsors and hosts has also given me opportunities to help others with my experience and colleagues.
My last philosophical reflection to share from the EAA farm fields comes courtesy of a couple lessons our class learned from Hundley Farms when they explained to us that when radishes are left in the field due to their non-marketable size they are reincorporated into the soil. Our tour guides further described how when produce is cut back into the fields, their decomposition helps feed the dirt for future crops. This jolted some of us but then I thought about it: sometimes we sacrifice through giving of ourselves toward the common goal in our families, work or public service and perhaps we don’t reach our own personal goals but we still retain an important purpose for future generations. The second part to this was the refrain of crop rotation and our class listening to the farmers share that it’s critical to the health of the soil to have crops moved around. My immediate reflection is that people too need to change up their routines to learn and connect more with others or risk stagnation and malaise.
UF Everglades Research and Education Center: