Divide And Conquer

Divide And Conquer

Today, led by father Dale Erickson and daughters Kim and Krista, the business is literally part of a living legacy where five generations have lived and worked. “As a Scandinavian immigrant, my grandfather planted everything tropical he could get his hands on,” says Dale, vice president and lead grower. “It became a tradition. He started it and each generation kept doing it.”

The 62-acre farm produces more than a dozen hard-to-grow, hard-to-find items including avocado, carambola (star fruit), sapodilla, longan, lychee, paan, papaya, as well as curry, mango, and banana leaf. However, mangos are Erickson’s true calling card. Forty acres alone are dedicated to growing multiple varieties of the fruit. “Compared to most producers in South Florida, we’re very small,” says Kim, president and head of strategy and marketing. “In terms of how we’re different in the way we operate, it’s very personal to us. We love mangos and love what we do.”

Competitive Edge

Certainly, the versatility and personal touch a smaller operation like Erickson Farm offers are pluses. It’s the farm’s physical location, however, that gives the business an inherent advantage. Nestled on the southeastern shore of Lake Okeechobee, the farm benefits from a unique microclimate and rich muck soil that allows for growing exotic produce. According to Kim, during last January’s cold spell, the farm didn’t suffer one freeze thanks to its proximity to the big body of water. “This is one of the things that led us to grow tropical fruit — because we can,” she says. “Because the area you can grow tropical fruit in Florida is so small geographically, that automatically limits our domestic competition. We’ve accumulated specialized knowledge that allows us to be successful in doing things we’re not supposed to be able to do.”
Stand Your Ground
According to the management team at Erickson Farm, there are a number of things small-to-medium sized growers can do to stay competitive in today’s world of rising input costs.
– Target Educated Customers: “They appreciate what they want and are willing to pay for it. That’s our customer.”
– Watch Market Trends: “They change because tastes change, transportation costs change, what can and cannot be imported changes.”
– Don’t Try To Compete With Large Growers: “Grow things that don’t work in economies of scale model (too temperamental, weird-shaped, doesn’t transport).”
– Sell More Locally And Direct
– Network With Other Small And Large Growers
– Diversify: “Experiment with various crops, work with multiple growers, try agritourism/off-farm income.”

Adjust Accordingly

Like most — if not all — other producers, game-changing pressures, such as the economic crunch, tightening credit, and increasing regulation and documentation, have provided ample hurdles for Erickson Farm to stay competitive, let alone profitable. “More and more, it’s challenging for us to deal with suppliers who also are trying to deal with thin margins,” says Krista, treasurer and director of operations. “Minimal order sizes go up and sometimes it’s challenging just to get product information if you’re not a big buyer.”
This kind of teamwork and trust comes in handy when unforeseen events arise. During the 2004-2005 hurricane seasons, the eyewall of hurricanes Frances, Jeanne, and Wilma rolled through Erickson Farm and took out almost a third of the grove. With those experiences behind them and lessons learned, a push to diversify and amp up additional resources have been priorities. “When you lose that much of your income for that long, you need to have something to fall back on,” Kim says. “You don’t always have the opportunity to sock money away and rely on that. You have to find ano th er creative way to do it.”

Evolution Solution

Keeping things fresh is an integral part of the equation. Besides tweaking its primary crop and shifting secondary crops over the years, the farm has recently released a couple of new varieties to customers and — most notably — has started to grow vegetables again. Winter veggies, including beets, broccoli, eggplant, swiss chard, and maybe some others will be added to the mix. “We haven’t done that since before they planted the groves here,” Kim adds.

Future Growth

Erickson Farm continues to expand its growth and reach. This has entailed building long-term relationships with wholesale clients. “We’re careful about market exclusivity,” Krista says. “We don’t take on a lot of new wholesale customers. Before we do, we make sure they are not going to be competing with any of our existing clients.”

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