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Business Observer Friday, May 5, 2017 2 years ago

Grow with Care

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Technological innovation is the new plow for farming. A family-run operation leads the way.
by: Beth Luberecki Contributing Writer

Springtime is potato harvest season at Jones Potato Farm in north Manatee County.

But this past spring was also awards season for the Parrish farm, when it was named a 2016 recipient of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services' Agricultural Environmental Leadership Award.

Since 1994, the award has recognized agricultural producers in the state that practice environmentally innovate farming techniques. Jones Potato Farm was honored for its precision farming and variable application methods, as well as its center-pivot irrigation system. Adopting those practices has reduced fertilizer use by 30% and water use by 60% at the farm.

“I'm proud to see us getting recognized for hopefully doing the right thing and not just staying in the status quo,” says Alan Jones, who started Jones Potato Farm 1986 with his father, David, and is now the sole owner. “And it's not only what can I do personally in my own business to make it as efficient as possible, but what can I do from a community standpoint to conserve natural resources and educate people about where their food comes from. That's really kind of a theme that I've adopted over the years.”

State agriculture leaders aren't the only ones who have noticed what Jones is up to.

“First and foremost, Alan Jones is a leader in the farming community,” says Manatee County Commission Chairwoman Betsy Benac, who first interacted with Jones when she was working in the civil engineering field. “Manatee County still has a huge part of our economy in agriculture. By being a leader, he's demonstrating to other farmers that they can be profitable and do things to be environmentally sound. He's a role model for other farmers.”

Outreach is also a big part of the farm's business plan, whether that's teaching local schoolchildren about how potatoes are grown or showing chefs what they can do with the farm's crops. “I think to win awards you've got to do more than be a good farmer,” says Jones. “You've got to be willing to reach out to your community and introduce them to who you are and what you're doing.”

Soil samples

Jones and his father started their farm on about 400 acres. Jones was still a student at the University of Florida, but his family had previous agriculture experience in northern Florida.

Jones, 49, bought out his father in 2002 and now runs the farm himself with help from his wife, Leslie, who handles marketing, public relations and food safety. Today Jones Potato Farm has about 4,000 acres, using about 2,800 acres for growing potatoes, including Yukon golds, reds, creamers, fingerlings and chip stock. Potatoes are planted from October through early January. Harvesting runs with from February through mid-May. Green beans get rotated into about 1,000 acres, either after the fall potatoes are harvested or before the spring potatoes get planted. That helps add organic matter back into the soil and maintain nitrogen levels. The farm grows citrus on another 800 acres located in Manatee, Hendry, Glade, and Lee counties and has 120 head of beef cattle on its ranch in Duette, in northeast Manatee County.

Jones declines to release the farm's revenue figures or any other financial data. But he did share that the farm grows about 50 million pounds of potatoes, 200,000 bushels of green beans and 175,000 boxes of citrus a year for customers like major potato chip makers, Publix, and local food-service suppliers. Quality and consistency is important with customers like these, which is one reason why Jones adopted precision farming methods.

By taking soil samples and mapping the results, Jones can see where the most productive soils are and where the soil might need some help. That allows him to add compost, organic fertilizers, natural manures or whatever else is required only where it's needed to get nutrient levels to prime growing conditions.

“We're able to use variable rates by utilizing GPS technology,” says Jones. “Instead of taking a whirly bird and flinging it out there, we actually drop it right in the furrow where the potatoes are grown. Our quality has increased, and we have more consistent yields across the farm.”

Crystal Snodgrass, an extension agent in Manatee County for the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension, applauds Jones. “Producers sometimes get stuck in their ways,” she says. “They want to do what their daddy did and don't look at some of the new innovations they could apply to their operations to make things better.”

Jones has been working with the Nature Conservancy and its 4R Nutrient Stewardship Program for several years. That program focuses on helping farmers get the right amount of the proper fertilizer in the correct place at the precise time. In 2013, Jones Potato Farm won a 4R Advocate Award — the first farm in Florida to win the national award.

“Alan continues to look for ways to improve his farming operation, and he's not afraid to step out of the box to try something new,” says David Royal, Florida nutrient stewardship director for the Nature Conservancy.

Sharing the story of Jones' success has helped Royal persuade other farmers to follow Jones. “People perk up when you're telling the story about what another farmer is doing,” he says.

And now Royal has another local story to tell: In March, West Coast Tomato in Palmetto, near the Jones farm, became the second Florida farm to win the 4R Advocate Award. “My goal is to have a winner every year,” he says. “I think the Florida agriculture story needs to be told.”

One more example of Jones' agriculture innovations comes in his irrigation methods. Six years ago, he switched from seepage irrigation to a center-pivot irrigation system (a form of overhead sprinkler irrigation). Center-pivot irrigation is rarely used in Florida.

After a five-year study of his center-pivot system, Jones saw the farm had reduced its historical water use by about 60% versus traditional irrigation methods.

Keep going

Jones isn't finished with his environmental stewardship efforts. At one of his citrus groves in LaBelle, in Hendry County, he's creating a retention system to capture drainage so that it doesn't go directly into the Caloosahatchee River and can be reused as irrigation water.

“We're going to see a huge reduction in our well-water withdrawals, we'll keep nutrients out of the Caloosahatchee, and we'll be able to cold protect our grove,” says Jones. “The way I look at new opportunities and business plans is, if you can get a win-win situation, that's as good as it gets.”

He applies that same philosophy to all of his business dealings. “What I've realized over the years is that our regulatory agencies are much more friend than foe,” he says. “If you come to the table with good ideas, you can work together collaboratively to achieve great things.”

Community outreach is another factor in the farm's success, says Snodgrass, the Manatee County extension agent. “A lot of producers don't make it a priority to tell everyone about what they do,” she says. “But publicity is extremely important. The public wants to know where its food is coming from. The Joneses are very proactive in doing that, and that's where a lot of other producers are lacking. It's not that they don't want to, but maybe they feel they don't have the time. But the Joneses have made it possible for their operation to be able to do both.”

So what's next? Jones Potato Farm is almost done with its new 40,000-square-foot green bean packinghouse in Palmetto. “We've been growing the product for 20 years and paying other people to pack it and sell it for us,” says Jones. “So we felt like the best thing for us would be to do it ourselves.”

Additional land purchases or new facility projects are a possibility down the road, especially if it would help diversify the operation so it's not overly dependent on one crop. But growth will be monitored closely.

“I don't have visions to be a huge agricultural conglomerate,” says Jones. “We're at a manageable point, and I just want to keep it there.”

GREEN GRASS

The environmentally responsible practices at Jones Potato Farm, in north Manatee County, have multiple benefits, especially in sustainability. That's partially how the farm became the first one in Florida to win a 4R Advocate Award from The Fertilizer Institute, in 2013.

David Royal, Florida nutrient stewardship director for the Nature Conservancy, says Alan Jones and the family's work shows up in other ways, too. That includes wetlands on the property that are inhabited by ducks and used for nests by sandhill cranes.

“Those wetlands are thriving like you wouldn't believe,” says Royal. “Jones has shown that agriculture and the environment and wildlife all work hand in hand. When you're doing it right, everything's going to thrive.”

(This story was updated to reflect the correct name of the organization that awarded Jones Potato Farm a 4R Advocate Award.)

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