Diversification Is King For Small Farm’s Success
Diversification in any business has its place, but in agriculture — and small farms in particular — it’s especially important. Steve Crump is a fourth-generation farmer in DeLeon Springs, who makes keeping up with the times a central part of his long-term business strategy.
The farm was established in the 1880s by Crump’s great grandparents who planted citrus and grew it into a fairly large operation by the 1900s. Today, Vo-LaSalle Farms is managed by Crump and his father, Bruce.
While the farm was situated in the heart of Florida’s citrus country for many years, the freezes in the 1980s changed all that as neighbors moved their groves moved south to warmer climes.
“As our groves got more productive, we were having difficulty finding people to pick or buy fruit because nobody believed there was any citrus left up here after the freezes,” Crump says. “We were selling citrus on fruit stands and got into the gift fruit business just to move it. We finally had to convince a buyer to come up here and buy juice oranges, which took a long time. And, we had to hire a harvest crew.”
Citrus continues to be the biggest revenue driver from Crump’s own acreage, along with the grove care and harvesting service he provides for several customers. And, he says, Vo-LaSalle’s citrus business continues to evolve. While it still grows oranges for juice, demand for fresh fruit has picked up in the last two years from customers who have fruit stands that run along I-95 as packinghouses to the south have closed.
Broader Crop Mix
That willingness to adapt the business over time has paid off. With the looming uncertainty surrounding HLB, diversification on the farm makes even more sense, but its roots can be traced back to canker eradication.
“When they started pushing out trees for canker, Dad and I determined if they found canker in our grove or neighbors’ groves, they would push everything we had,” Crump says. “I didn’t want to be stuck with nothing else, so we started looking at other crops. We went from considering grape vineyards to blueberries, but then I stumbled across these vegetables growing on hydroponic towers during a farm tour. We thought that would be right for us because the season coincides with the citrus season.”
The family installed Verti-Gro towers and planted strawberries for U-Pick on the farm in 2008. The idea was the U-Pick would draw people to the farm and result in more retail sales of citrus.
“That was the initial goal — if they come out and pick strawberries, we can sell them oranges,” Crump says. “But, that was the wrong assumption. We quickly learned the first season that we needed even more than strawberries. We also planted a few rows of tomatoes and squash, and we sold far and away more of those than strawberries.”
Crump says customers drive out to pick the strawberries, but when they get to the farm, they buy other items. The following year, the vegetable plantings were doubled. And, they kept increasing the number of different vegetables planted to provide customers more choices.
“What I have learned is I can only sell you as many oranges as you can eat in a week or two, but the more different things I have, the more you will buy,” Crump says. “The vegetables did so well that before long we had to hire a full-time person (Kathy Frymire) to manage the vegetables and help take care of customers on the farm.”
Now the farm’s retail product offerings include a variety of choices for customers. Vo-LaSalle offers fresh citrus and juice and vegetables, including U-Pick strawberries, heirloom and Tasti-Lee tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash, celery, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, green beans, onions, and several varieties of leafy greens.
“We offer a lot, but not large quantities of any of it,” Crump says. “We are on a two-week planning cycle trying to match our sales to every two weeks. Sometimes, we get overrun with particular produce and sometimes we don’t have enough. We plant every two weeks on the fast-growing stuff. The tomatoes are planted in September and we take them all the way into June. Even the Tasti-Lee tomatoes, which are determinate, keep producing fruit deep into the season.”