What's the first state you think of when you're shopping for potatoes? Chances are, it's not Florida despite the fact that thousands of acres in southeast Lee County produce millions of pounds of potatoes each year.
In fact, if you bite into a white, red, or yellow potato between February and April, it may have come from one of the Troyer Brothers farms in Lehigh Acres.
The spuds' journey from seed stock to countertop gets underway this month as planting begins at Troyer Brothers' Lehigh farm site.
Photo by MEL TOADVINE
Ready for planting is what Aaron, left, and his father, David Troyer of Troyer Farms, are talking about in the large potato packing house along SR82. It's potato planting season for this major Lehigh operation.
The planting process isn't what you might expect. There's a lot more to it than digging a hole and dropping in a "seed."
At the Troyer Brothers' operation, there's a lot of technology involved that mingles with the family's more than 50 years of potato farming experience
The Troyer family comes from Pennsylvania, where they have grown potatoes since 1943. In 1983, brothers Vern, Don and David started farms in Florida as well.
Today, the brothers along with Dave's son, Aaron, manage an up to 125-person operation producing approximately 50 million pounds of potatoes annually that are sold locally, nationally and in Canada under the Sun King or private labels.
Locals and potato aficionados agree that Troyer produces some of the "hottest" potatoes around come spring, but it takes several months of hard work to make them grow in Florida's climate.
"Growing potatoes in Florida is like trying to put a square peg in a round hole," said Aaron Troyer. "Potatoes like to start out in cool temperatures, grow in warmth and get harvested when it's cool again. We do the opposite."
Before any potatoes are planted, fields must be leveled flat using lasers. Water levels are stabilized using water tables and ditches. Fields are fertilized and treated with pesticides. "Seed potatoes" often potatoes harvested at Troyer Brothers' farm in Pennsylvania are chopped into seeds, or chunks containing at least one "eye."
When this is done, seeds are loaded into tractors that dig a ridge in the dirt, drop in a seed, and re-cover the opening in a single pass. The space between seeds can be adjusted electronically from the tractor. Over the next few months, weather and other conditions are monitored carefully to ensure water levels are adjusted to stay just right. Potatoes planted today should be ready to harvest between February and April 2010.
Troyer Brothers' packing bar is clearly visible along SR82, just past Homestead Rd. if you're heading toward Immokalee.
Aaron Troyer said there are thousands of acres in Florida where they plant potatoes.
"I think you could say that there are plenty of large farm operations like us, but we are among the largest," he said.
"We are just across the road from what is considered Lehigh, so we consider ourselves a company in Lehigh.
"We're in the Lehigh Acres Fire District. They come out here and do all the inspections," he said.
As he was talking, another big truck of potatoes backed up to a conveyor belt as employees made sure the spuds worked their way through the complicated machinery that cuts them up for seed potatoes.
Then big trucks are driven out to the fields where the planting is taking place this week.
"It's quite an operation. We enjoy this work. My grandfather started potato farming and his sons and I have continued to work it," said Aaron Troyer.