By Karla Arboleda
Tradition runs deep in Florida, but the state now has more growers producing a new range of specialty crops.
PURPLE SWEET POTATO
Danny Johns, a fourth-generation potato farmer, grows a purple sweet potato with a fresh aesthetic and more nutrients to promote healthier eating. Aside from being brand new eye candy, Blue Sky Farms’ new variety grows right on schedule with the rest of its crops.
“This is a perfect fit with our conventional potato crop because it’s very complementary to our growing seasons. It grows well in Florida in the summertime,” Johns said. “When you cook it, it gets more purple, so the foodies love it too.”
The purple sweet potato isn’t just pretty; it’s high in anthocyanins, which are linked to helping prevent cancer. The tropical plant hails from the West Coast and motivates growers like Johns to push the importance of growing a variety of crops locally.
“One constant in farming is change,” Johns said. “We’re always looking for new crops as constantly evolving to what the consumers are going to want, so health benefits and locally grown are the two key things.”
Angela Bean wants to see the datil pepper become hotter to consumers. Dubbed “The Datil Pepper Lady,” Bean has spent 10 years working with the crop and thinks it could become a household name.
“People know what a ghost pepper is and what a Carolina Reaper pepper are,” Bean said. “We’ve been doing this for about 10 years but we’re actively promoting the datil pepper because it is an unknown.”
Wendy Mussoline, an agriculture agent with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences in Flagler and Putnam counties, adds that new crops are constantly being improved with sustainable practices in mind.
“Artichokes are traditionally just grown in California, and we’ve been doing trials on them for two years in Hastings,” Mussoline said. “We have determined that we can add a plant hormone, gibberellic acid, to that artichoke and trick it to think it’s cold down here.”
David Jenkins, an Extension agent for the University of Florida multi-county community development food systems, highlights the history behind what specialty crops are currently being worked on today.
“The tri-county (agricultural) area that’s Flagler, Putnam and St. Johns counties … really were the original local food area in Florida,” Jenkins said. “The last 100 years, it been potatoes and cabbage mostly, but in the last 10 years there’s been a lot of transition going on. We have over 20 Asian vegetables being grown in the tri-county area.”
Not only are Florida growers excited to offer consumers something different, they also want to show that they care about more wholesome products.
“The purple sweet potato, the broccoli, the Brussels sprouts and the datil peppers can help with a lot of chronic disease issues if people eat them in the proper way,” Jenkins said. “One of the biggest issues in our country is health; from an economic standpoint and just people’s quality of life. We see our area as a super-food production area.”
While Tri-County growers test different alternative crops, Jenkins has faith that the growers will continue to be stewards of the land.
“Our farmers are all using sustainable practices,” Jenkins said. “The biggest thing we’re so proud of is their water conservation and how water quality has improved.”
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