Not all tropical fruit in the U.S. is imported, and consumers in Florida can buy homegrown lychee, longan, dragon fruit and carambola.
Florida’s tropical industry includes about 15,000 acres — about half of which is set aside for avocado production.
It’s a stable industry, according to Louise King, vice president of the Homestead-based Tropical Fruit Growers of South Florida Inc.
“I’m watching another 40-80 acres of tropical fruit trees going in, so it must be going pretty (well),” King said, pointing out that most of the new plantings are in southern Dade County.
Seasons vary for different items. Lychee is harvested in May and June; longan, July and August; and dragon fruit, late summer to early fall, King said.
“It’s a little bit of everything, and it’s all utilized in fresh,” she said.
Homegrown tropical fruits are generally cost-friendly, King said.
“If you go into large volumes and it goes into the Publix and the Walmart, it’s definitely very affordable,” she said.
It’s not uncommon for residents with their own trees to sell product, King said.
“If you have a tree in your yard or it’s down the street, you can always find somebody selling whatever fruit is in season on the side of the road,” she said.
King said her organization, which has nearly 100 grower-members, focuses on educating consumers about tropical fruits.
“We realized that a lot of these fruits are unknown to the mainstream, because these are more ethnic fruits, for the Latin population and the Asian and Indian populations,” she said.
The organization secured grant money to shoot a series of 26 videos about 13 Florida-grown tropical fruits that it uploaded to its YouTube channel, www.youtube.com/user/tropicalfruitgrowers, King said.
There are two videos for each of the 13 fruit items. One is shot in the field and the other in a kitchen.
“Then, of course, we direct everybody to our website so they can contact the growers directly to get fresh tropical fruits sent right to their door, or they can ask their produce manager to get them,” King said.
All fruit produced in Florida is sold each year, King said.
“A lot of times, we’ll get competition from imports, so it’s not always at the price we’d like them to get, but we also educate people about the fruit,” King said.
Florida’s industry has stabilized after the real estate boom of the 1980s and 1990s, King said.
“The last big push for growth was in dragon fruit in the last four or five years,” she said. “It’s at least 40 acres of the new planting.”
King said she does not expect dramatic growth in the industry, however.
“Land prices are still very costly and, unless you already have land, you don’t have any return on your dollar for a couple of years,” she said.
Florida product reaches markets mostly along the East Coast, with some going into the Midwest, King said.
“(There is) too much competition from imports on the West Coast,” she said.
Store promotions are only sporadic because of limited funding, King said, noting that dues are $100 for a commercial-sized grower and $25 for a “hobbyist-type” grower.
The future of the state’s industry is difficult to gauge, said Jessie Capote, owner of Miami-based J&C Tropicals.
“Land has not continued to skyrocket because of the real estate bust, so there are more opportunities for farmers than five years ago, but it’s too early to tell where it’s going,” he said.
Marc Holbik, chief executive officer of Medley, Fla.-based Ecoripe Tropicals, said he is a big supporter of Florida’s industry.
“We do a bit of lychees and longans when they’re in season, and we do Thai guava pretty much year-round, and we do some specialty vegetables out of Homestead, as well,” he said.