By Doug Ohlemeier, The Packer

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Demand for south Florida tropicals is increasing.

That's what members of the area's news media saw during a July 26 tour that gave them a closer view of the region's thriving tropicals business.

Sponsored by the Miami-Dade County Farm Bureau, the tour for reporters and food writers was of growing and packing operations.

The roots of Miami-based J&C Tropicals Inc. are literally in roots, said Jessie Capote, vice president of operations and co-owner of the family-owned business that imports and sells boniato (or sweet potatoes), avocados and other tropical fruit and roots. Participants viewed avocado packing and saw some of the company's other exotic fruits.

"Everyone's trying to address the tropicals market," Capote said. "It's the new market everyone's trying to go after."

Capote said tropicals used to be sold primarily on the Eastern Seaboard and the West Coast. Today, they're sold all over the country, including in Midwestern cities such as Minneapolis.

To keep up with growing demand and the food safety concerns of its retail customers, J&C has invested in quality control measures, Capote said.

"A lot of our retail clients expect incredible quality control," he said. "We have had to reorganize our entire repacking department to cater to that demand. This business is all about coolers."

Higher-than-normal south Florida avocado production has challenged growers and packers, said Diego Rodriguez, president of Florida City-based Rodriguez Grove Services Inc.

"Supply is so vast (that) the market is depressed," he said. "The groves have recovered from the hurricanes, and the fruit has been restored."

Florida avocados, which last year in late July sold for $30 a bushel, were running as low as $7-$8 a bushel this year, Rodriguez said.

Trying to counter what he calls lower-quality dragon fruit (pitahaya), Roger Washington, grower and owner of Redlands-based Red Dragon Fruit Co., said he is trying to brand the fruit his company grows in south Florida. The 10-year-old operation also grows other exotic fruits such as jackfruit, Thai guava and longans, which are similar to lychees.

Demand remains strong for the specialty items Red Dragon sells to high-end chefs from South Beach to New York and Las Vegas, he said.

Washington uses his 7-year-old daughter, Lauren Washington, as the company's taste-tester.

"Kids, I have found, are the true test," Washington said. "They tell you it's either yummy or yucky."

One challenge the company faces, however, involves keeping the fruits' brix levels high, Washington said.

Other challenges for south Florida growers involve high production costs and increasing land values, said Mark Ellenby, grower and owner of LNB Groves, Homestead, who formerly worked for Brooks Tropicals Inc., also based in Homestead.

The company sells its specialty fruit to Asian and Indian distributors through Fresh King Inc., Homestead, and other packers.

"It's challenging to grow here," Ellenby said. "We have to do all that we can to have top-quality product to compete with imports. If you want to survive in farming, you have to grow a wide range of products."