Around Florida – Farming in the Everglades

The new water route has proved immensely popular and the people living around Lake Okeechobee and earning their livelihood from the Everglades muck-land feel, for the first time, as secure in their persons and property as human foresight can insure security.

The Okeechobee dyke, as this is written, is in process of developing into what may prove to be one of Florida’s most popular scenic highways. The dyke is about 200 feet wide at the base and more than 20 feet, levelled off, on top. In the summer of 1937 it was possible for a motor car to mount to the top of the dyke at any one of numerous points around the lake, and to travel with reasonable comfort along the still unpaved surface at the top. The plan is to develop the upper part of the dyke as a motor road, with bridges crossing the necessary openings where drainage canals connect with the lake. From the top of the dyke one gets a sweeping view of hundreds of square miles of the flat, fertile Everglades, with the blue waters of Lake Okeechobee, stretching forty miles from north to south and more than thirty from east to west, reflecting the Florida sunshine, on the other side.

From Okeechobee City, on the north shore of the lake, it is now possible to motor over wide, paved highways all around the east and southerly sides of the lake as far as Moore Haven on the west, and thence to the Gulf coast at Fort Myers; while one of the best and straightest motor roads in South Florida leads westward from Okeechobee City through Arcadia and on to the main highways of the West Coast. Eastward the principal road from Lake Okeechobee parallels the wide and navigable Palm Beach drainage canal, emptying into Lake Worth at West Palm Beach, which is the commercial metropolis of this whole upper Everglades region.

Instead of approaching Palm Beach through the front door, as most visitors do, let us look first at its back yard. That is the Everglades farming country. No community in history has ever acquired and held a position of enduring importance without a sound economic foundation in the form of a wealth-producing hinterland. The city of West Palm Beach has that economic background, which makes it much more than merely an entrance to a fashionable resort, gives it more stability than that which derives from its own growing volume of winter tourists. Those things are important, but they are no more important to the future of West Palm Beach than are the millions of dollars of winter vegetables and fruits that are shipped North through its portals from its Everglades back country.

Farming in the Everglades is a highly specialized occupation. Few growers produce more than one product, though most of them get three crops a year. Occasionally an Ever glades farmer succeeds with no capital to speak of but his piece of land and his bare hands. Such successes are the exception. The rule in Everglades agriculture, as in farming elsewhere in Florida, is that one must have capital, intelligence, industry and patience. Possessed of those, there are few, if any spots in the world where such large profits can be earned so quickly. Some of the Everglades farming operations run to a thousand or more acres under one management in a single crop; hundreds of Everglades farmers make comfortable incomes on 20-acre tracts.

The principal crop of this district is beans. Florida supplies nearly seven-eighths of all the string beans consumed in the United States, and nearly half of the Florida beans are grown in the Everglades. The profit comes from the fact that three crops, and sometimes four, are harvested every year on the same land. Much of the bean and other vegetable production in the Everglades is on rented land. The individual small farmer can seldom afford the necessary investment in ditches and drains to connect his few acres with one of the main drainage canals. This is done for him, usually, by a development corporation, from which he then either buys or rents his farm. Everglades farm rentals run from twenty dollars to fifty dollars a year per acre, the average being around $40. When this is spread over three or four crops in the course of ten months the rental is not high compared with a net profit which averages, on beans, from $25 to $30 per crop per acre. One instance cited to the authors in 1937 was of a farmer who rented 40 acres on shares, the agreement being that he was to pay a quarter of his net receipts from beans for the use of the land. At the end of the season he turned over a check for $1600, which made his rental $40 an acre and indicated that after paying the rent he had earned $4800 in ten months from his forty acres.

Around 10,000 acres of these Everglades farms are usually planted to peas. Tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, lima beans, celery and, indeed, almost every kind of vegetable which the markets of the North will buy at fancy prices off-season is grown on these rich muck farms.

One of the largest farm developments in the state is at Port Mayaca, at the point where the cross-state canal enters Lake Okeechobee. Here 7,000 acres belonging to the immensely wealthy Phipps Estate, operating in Florida as the Bessemer Corporation, has been subjected to the most intensive and scientifically-based development. The entire tract is laid out in twenty-acre squares, each of them bordered on all four sides by a system of canals which, operated by sluice-gates and pumps, can be used either for drainage in case of high water and heavy rains, or for irrigation in dry seasons. Each twenty-acre block is surrounded by a windbreak of tall Australian pine (also known as Brazilian oak) 75 miles of trees in all, and by roads substantial enough for heavy trucking in any weather. There are fifty miles of roads in this checker-board arrangement, and fifty miles of canals which can discharge 40,000 gallons of water a minute into the St. Lucie canal, or pour 15,000 gallons a minute onto the land in time of drought, with all Lake Okeechobee as the reservoir to draw from.