Farm City awards: Specialty Crop Farmers

Jay and Kim Jackson were named 2019 Specialty Crop Farmers of the Year.

Jay Jackson is a second-generation produce farmer in Jackson County. In 1981, Jay’s father, Tommy, experimented with a one-acre U-Pick tomato operation to complement their watermelon and peanut farming operation. That first year was so successful that their operation soon grew to 100 acres of tomatoes. Jay took over the management of the farm in 1991 and made the decision to focus solely on fresh-produce farming.

Today, Jackson Farms raises tomatoes, watermelons, green peppers, squash and green beans. They sell wholesale produce to buyers from Texas to New York, with the majority going up the east coast. But even today, they still designate fields for U-Pick sales on the honor system. People from all around the tri-state region make an annual trek to pick their own fresh tomatoes for $9 per five-gallon bucket in June and October.

Jay and Kim are a true team after 30 years of marriage. Jay handles the farming, harvest, and packing. Kim is the office manager, in charge of meeting the food safety regulations and audits, payroll, and accounting. Neither would enjoy the other’s job, but together the two handle what 4-6 people do on larger vegetable operations. When asked about their work, Jay said, “Farming is not nostalgic like a country song. It takes 16 hour days — 7 days a week during planting and harvest. The only real break in the year comes in December.” By mid-January they jump right back into preparing for the spring crops. Jackson Farms employs six full-time workers and 50-60 seasonal workers for planting and harvest.

This dynamic duo has faced a number of challenges, but they still love what they do. Their greatest challenges are meeting ever- tightening food safety and environmental regulations and (securing) dependable labor. Their number one concern is finding qualified labor in the future. Other industries are gobbling up available migrant labor with higher-paying jobs. Most of their current workers have been coming back for the past 20-30 years, but when they lose an employee, it is getting harder and harder to replace them. Anyone can learn to pick fresh produce, but it takes real skill to harvest and pack efficiently and consistently. The last three years have been really difficult. In 2017, whiteflies brought diseases that wiped out their fall crops. Last year, Hurricane Michael destroyed their fall crop and their packing shed, which just was rebuilt in June. Finally, this year conditions were some better, but even with irrigation the crops were stressed by the extreme heat and extended drought that reduced yields. Even with ideal weather, increasing competition with Mexico and Canada, and large corporate farms, have depressed produce prices.

One of the great challenges with growing fresh vegetables is competing with weeds and soil nematodes. For years, methyl bromide was used as a fumigant to reduce these pests, but this chemical was taken off the market in the early 2000s because it was deemed an ozone depleter. Jay has been working for several years with Dr. Josh Freeman, UF/IFAS Vegetable Specialist in Quincy, to compare a wide range of new fumigants and plastics to develop systems to find solutions for these issues. When Dr. Freeman was asked about recognizing Jay, he said, “Jay has been an exceptional cooperator and I highly recommend him for this recognition.”

The Specialty Crop Farmer of the Year was selected by the Jackson County Extension Service with assistance from UF/IFAS Researchers and the local farming industry.

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