Meet the Grower: Charles Counter
Grove Location: Winter Haven, Florida (Polk County)
Uncle Matt’s Grower Since: 2014
Crops and Acreage: Three different varieties of peaches (14 acres), five different varieties of blueberries (7 acres), one variety of blackberries (.75 acres with 3 additional in production for 2016)
For the past 20 years, Charles has been the Director of Field Operations for Haines City Citrus Growers Association, an 8,000-acre fresh citrus producer located in Polk County, Florida. Charles manages all the caretaking and harvesting operations for the company. His expertise includes all aspects of production, including: land preparation for planting, installing micro-jet irrigation systems, inspecting each grove for pests and monitoring the groves’ nutritional levels year round.
Combining decades of hands-on field experience with a citra-business degree from Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Florida, it’s no wonder that when Charles chose to expand his crop portfolio into peaches, blueberries and blackberries, his operation was a success from the get-go.
UM: How did you come to partner with Uncle Matt’s?
CC: My involvement with Uncle Matt’s has been through Haines City Citrus. We pack all of their fresh organic citrus and we’ve had citrus growers that have been in the Uncle Matt’s organic citrus program for 8 to 10 years now. I’ve also worked with Uncle Matt’s on production and harvesting, so when Uncle Matt’s began marketing blueberries and peaches for other growers, I thought that would be an interesting market to pursue. That’s when we decided to enlist these acres in the program with them.
UM: Did citrus greening play a part in your decision to diversify?
CC: You know, I’m sure it has and that’s spreading your eggs out a little bit. We’re struggling with citrus production and until some better remedies to live with the disease are made more readily available, I’m glad I am diversifying into these other crops.
UM: Why did you decide to farm organically?
CC: I would say it’s a two-fold answer. First, we’ve always been savvy with integrative pest management. When we farm organically, we’re working with the environment instead of against it, which has always been our protocol even for conventional citrus production. Second, we thought farming these commodities organically would provide a marketing advantage by extending our season and giving us higher returns. That has played out well for us this season as opposed to the conventional blueberry market that is already somewhat flooded and a lot of folks didn’t harvest their entire crop because of market conditions. We started our season earlier than conventional and it’s extended longer, and we were able to pick our entire crop.
UM: So do you feel like organic is where consumer demand is growing?
CC: Yes. Talk to any major grocer and it’s the fastest-growing segment of the store. Even though it may not be a large percentage of overall sales yet, it’s still the fastest-growing segment.
UM: Why are you proud to put your fruit on the market?
CC: #1 reason we’re proud is because we know it’s 100% chemical-free which gives you a sense of safety. Second, we’re very quality-oriented. I go into the grocery store and look for Uncle Matt’s products and I compare those to other comparable products. I’ll take pictures and send them to the Uncle Matt’s office to point out the quality of the blackberries we’re selling compared to what they’re shipping in from Mexico. We do extensive field grading and extensive packing grading when we bring our fruit to the packinghouse. We know that when we ship a product that it’s the very best that we can ship. We’re not about volume; we’re about quality. That goes hand-in-hand with a small marketplace.
UM: Your operation is less than 3 years old, the time required to transition crops from conventional to organic. Is your acreage still in transition or already certified-organic?
CC: Our acreage did not have to go through transition because the property was chemical free for decades, so upon installation it was certified organic.
UM: What’s your role as far as the day-to-day operations?
CC: As an owner-operator, I spend a lot of nights and weekends spraying. Day to day, we have a very talented and dedicated crew of four or five workers that know how to fertilize these crops for us. They know how to tie up blackberry canes, prune blueberries, thin peaches and harvest all of them at the right time. My 79-year-old father is out there working every day and very excited about this, along with my nephew who is also a part of our operation.
UM: Coming from a citrus background, how did you learn to grow these other crops successfully?
CC: We didn’t know anything about it 2 ½ years ago when we started. Our team has all learned together from day one. We’re learning as we go.
UM: I’m sure your production experience of managing thousands of acres of citrus at a time has played into being able to make this a successful transition. Do you agree?
CC: You’re right. Horticulture is horticulture. You’re educated in it and you’ve grown up in it. Soil science and plant nutrition can be applied to almost every crop. Pest and disease management, including pest cycles and disease cycles, can be adapted to different commodities but all stems from the same principles in horticulture science.
UM: Since beginning this project in 2013, what has been the most challenging aspect of farming these crops?
CC: Probably disease management. We don’t have as many tools in our box as we need to tackle our problems organically. We’ve handled pest management pretty well, but disease management on peaches and blueberries has been the biggest challenge. We’ve had to adapt the growing conditions to prevent the problems from happening in the first place, rather than controlling them once we get them.
UM: How do your challenges compare to those in conventional agriculture?
CC: Farming organically is a completely different way of looking at horticulture. Most of the conventional horticulture across the country is response-oriented, rather than prevention-oriented. Growing organically is definitely a program in prevention. We created this farm based on that. We selected varieties that were the most disease-resistant coming out of the nurseries. Although more expensive up front, our entire farm is in 20-gallon pots rather than on the ground for weed, moisture and pest control. All the pots sit on ground cover for weed control, which is one of our most expensive care-taking items because there is no good, effective organic weed control. So, we needed to prevent the weeds as best we could, rather than just fight them.
UM: What did you do for the soil you used in the pots?
CC: All of the compost that we put in the pots was certified organic. We didn’t just start on a property that was certifiable, but in pots with soil that was already certified.
UM: Do you feel that growing organically in Florida puts you at a disadvantage due to inadequate soil and the wet, pest-and-disease-prone sub-tropical climate?
CC: No, some of those factors are negatives but at the same time, they are positives. We generally have a very well-drained soil. We don’t worry much about too much rain. We’re lacking in organic matter, which is part of the reason I went with pots. Another positive is that our sub-tropical location allows us to get in the market a month before everyone else. Our market window is about 4-6 weeks, that’s why it’s so important to grow high-quality, good-size fruit and get it all in the marketplace.
UM: What’s been the most rewarding aspect of this organic farm project?
CC: Of course, it has to be harvest time. We work very hard for 12 months, babysitting our crops everyday, and then we get to harvest season. Our crops are healthy with high yields, packing out at 98 to 100% at the packinghouse. The finished product at the store is beautiful and we have repeat orders. That’s satisfaction –– plain and simple.
UM: What’s your take on the flavor quality of this year’s crop?
CC: Everybody says the flavor is superior. First year plants can struggle with [flavor] quality, but our second-year crop is just beautiful. For our blackberries, they’re huge, thornless and sweet ––– a very uniform crop. For our blueberries, they’re extra-large and disease-free; they’re just super.
UM: What do you appreciate most about your partnership with Uncle Matt’s?
CC: They’re homegrown. They understand. They’re all about quality. We have a very close, daily communication line in regards to sales, packing and market conditions. It’s working very well and I’m glad I went with them as opposed to working with a super-large commodity marketer.
UM: Last one. What question do you think consumers should be asking when buying fresh produce?
CC: Is it locally grown? That’s really the most important question in my eyes. You are supporting your local economy and it’s the freshest product you can get. Typically, if you’re eating locally-grown produce, it’s been picked and packed within 3 days of being in the consumers’ hands.