With spring comes peak harvest time for veggies in Palm Beach County, from sugar cane – the area’s main crop – to corn, beans and leafy greens.
So what makes Belle Glade such fertile ground? “It’s the type of soil,” says John E. “Buddy” McKinstry, owner of JEM Farms. “It’s all organic, black muck, and it’s very forgiving to farming most of the time.”
And while the spring season can get pretty frenzied, many farmers keep their plates full year round. Paul Orsenigo, who owns Orsenigo Farms and co-owns Grower’s Management, shares, “The spring corn harvest is a very heavy time in terms of a lot of volume, but, you know, we’re just pretty much always busy.”
Here’s a closer look at these successful Palm Beach County farms:
Orsenigo Farms/Grower’s Management
By the time he was 8 years old, Paul Orsenigo knew he wanted to be a farmer. His dad was a plant research physiologist at what was then called the Everglades Experiment Station in Belle Glade, and the family grew their own blackberries, peanuts, okra, carrots and other produce at home.
“I chose to go into production and growing, rather than research,” Orsenigo says. “Looking back, things went pretty much full circle in terms of being a go-to person for problem-solving with crops, giving back to the industry and helping farmers.”
“We put a lot of thought and planning into production and harvesting to make things as efficient as possible.”
– Paul Orsenigo, owner of Orsenigo Farms
After working for several other growers – he started during college summers and Christmas vacations – Orsenigo opened his own farm in 1985 on 80 rented acres, growing lettuce and other produce. Despite what he describes as “tribulations, highs and lows, and good and bad times,” by the mid-1990s, he’d established a thriving sugar cane operation and became a grower-member of the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida in Belle Glade. In 2000, Orsenigo partnered with David Basore to form Grower’s Management and expanded to other crops, including green beans, sweet corn and leafy veggies, most of which are available from November through May. Orsenigo, who served on the board of the Western Palm Beach County Farm Bureau and other agricultural agencies for many years, manages about 2,000 acres via the two companies. His son, Derek, and Basore’s son, Dave, work with their dads on the Grower’s Management side.
Through the years, Orsenigo has come to appreciate the importance of crop diversification, due to multiple market and weather risks. Production of multiple crops in the vegetable sector helps minimize some of the volatility. “We diversify because it’s just so unpredictable,” he says.
Orsenigo believes in maximizing equipment by using it for multiple crops. A single tractor can be designated for spring mix and lettuce, or for cane and sweet corn. One irrigation system works equally well for spring baby lettuce and conventional lettuce.
“We put a lot of thought and planning into production and harvesting to make things as efficient as possible,” he says. “It drives margins and our profitability, which is very challenging in today’s world.”
COVID-19 cut short his 2020 farm tours, but Orsenigo hopes to offer them again this year for groups ranging from regulators and business leaders to schoolkids. “It is always very enlightening for folks who are not in agriculture to see all the wheels, the moving parts, the jobs and the network of economies that are supported through agriculture and all the vendors.”
Buddy McKinstry was surprised last April when, despite the shift to a drive-thru format due to COVID-19, the 20th annual South Florida Sweet Corn Fiesta drew long lines of festivalgoers hungry for bags of the region’s famous sweet corn.
“We went through one semitrailer,” he recalls, “and realized it was crazier than what any of us expected.”
Although he grows cabbage, green beans, watermelons, cucumbers, eggplant, squash and bell peppers, corn has been McKinstry’s mainstay since launching JEM Farms in 1994 after working for another grower for 15 years.
“It’s probably one of the easier crops because I already knew how to grow sweet corn and was able to get equipment that can be used for other things,” he says.
The seed for McKinstry’s chosen profession was planted long ago; his dad and both grandfathers farmed before him. Buddy started with about 200 acres and added more over the years, for a current total of 5,000 acres, thanks to a joint venture with another farm.
JEM is still a family affair. McKinstry’s daughter, Erin, manages the office, while his son, Shaun (who will eventually take over the operations), oversees corn, cabbage and sugar cane.
The COVID-19 pandemic hit McKinstry hard, especially when it temporarily shut down his industry and he lost some of his crops.
“For the first two weeks, everybody was just kind of in shock, the whole country,” he says. “Then as weeks went by, it got back up and we were able to get back to harvesting corn.”
In the fall of 2019, the laid-back McKinstry tried something new, planting 200 acres of mixed-bag veggies on a plastic covering to help keep out weeds, aid in harvesting and protect the products from scarring. The experiment was so successful he did it again last year.
McKinstry has learned to go with the flow when it comes to farming.
“Things just kind of happened and evolved over the years,” he says. “I didn’t go out and solicit to become a farming partner with somebody. Most of the farming deals I have are with people that I’ve formed joint ventures with.”
Come the hectic corn harvest in April and May, the madness will set in once again. That’s when, he says, “It goes from zero to 60 in about one day.”