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Tom O'Brien

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Business: The farm, a wholesale agricultural operation with a family-friendly retail component, covers more than 500 acres in east Manatee County. Produce, sold through the O'Brien family-run C & D Fruit and Vegetable Co., include cucumbers, onions, peppers, strawberries, squash, and zucchini. Clients range from Sysco to independent restaurants up and down the East Coast. The crops side of the business has struggled somewhat in recent years, Tom O'Brien says. But the retail side, with a U-Pick patch and an educational center, is thriving. The family launched the retail side in the fall of 2010, and O'Brien says “business has picked up every year.”

Industry: Competition, mostly from Mexico, is a significant challenge to farming in Florida. “It's getting tougher,” says O'Brien, who adds that low wages Mexico growers pay workers is a major issue. Even China has become a competitive force against Florida farming, says O'Brien, mostly because of its labor cost structure. O'Brien Family Farms has up to 400 employees during busy growing and picking seasons, so wages are a constant competitive issue, much like it is for many tomato growers statewide. “We're driving costs out of our system,” O'Brien says. “We're working hard to be more efficient.”

Region: O'Brien says he began to notice a slight improvement in the local economy last winter, when the farm was busy every weekend. Many customers, he adds, were snowbirds. Seeing that kind of disposable income return, says O'Brien, was a good sign he hopes to see again this year. Says O'Brien: “It seems like we are on a little bit of an upswing.”



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