The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Specialty Vegetables

Specialty Vegetables

From the Farmer's Tractor

November 28, 2010

Roland Yee, 34, grows a variety of specialty Asian leaf products such as Chinese cabbage, Napa, Bok Choy, Baby Bok Choy, Dikon radish, Kohlrabi and Mustard Green. In all, Yee grows approximately 14 different items on his Florida farm in Boynton Beach. He is a third generation farmer for Yee Farms.

How did you get into specialty vegetable farming?

My grandparents immigrated to The United States in the early 1900’s and settled in the Northwest mountain region of Great Meadows, New Jersey where they began farming specialty vegetables. In the 1970’s the operation was expanded to Florida in order to supply customers with fresh produce year round. Although growing up on the farm had its advantages and disadvantages, I decided to diverge from farming out of high school to attend college and earn a degree in Chemical Engineering. Post college I moved to North Carolina to work as a process engineer for an optical fiber corporation. The longing for the open space, outdoors, agricultural lifestyle, and occupational freedom that I once experienced led me to once again redirect my life back to agriculture and return to the family farm in 2005.

How have your farming practices changed over the last 10 years?

As Farmers we realize that the land, the environment, and our natural resources are our livelihoods; without them we would not be able to do what we do. The most advanced improvement we have made in our operation, as many others have as well, is the use of safer, more environmentally sound chemicals. Many of the chemicals we use today are pest specific. Going back 10 to 15 years ago, many of the chemicals used were engineered to be broad spectrum for the purposes of killing many different types of insects, therefore resulting in harsher products. Today’s chemicals, through research and development and the help of our land grant universities, have developed into very pest specific, soft chemicals that are environmentally sound, safe for human and wildlife consumption, and have much improved efficacy. Years ago farmers were forced to use chemicals that had half-lives and pre-harvest intervals of weeks if not months. Today we use chemicals that have pre-harvest intervals of hours if any at all. In fact, there are many products that are used today that allow for safe human consumption of the fruit and vegetable right after the product has been applied.

The use of specialty fertilizers has also increased. Much like humans, a healthy plant is able to combat bacteria, fungus, and pest better than a weaker, unhealthy plant. Many of these fertilizers are in liquid form allowing them to be applied by a spray rig, which minimizes any leaching of nutrients into the ground. These fertilizers have no pre-harvest intervals associated with them, so I am able to apply the fertilizer and safely consume the product that same day. The general public has a negative view on chemicals; however, if they would educate themselves on the newer, safer, more environmentally friendly chemicals we use today, they would realize that agriculture in this country has made leaps and bounds to ensure the future not only for our farming families but for your family and our environment as well.

How will specialty vegetable farming evolve in the next five years?

I think one of the major advances you will see in the produce market will be that of food safety. As the general public begins to better understand the safety standards that domestic growers are migrating to, they will begin to realize that a tomato is not a tomato, and a cabbage is not a cabbage. I believe food safety will eventually evolve from the mentality of “cost of doing business” with the distributors to an end user demand. 

What is your greatest challenge as a specialty vegetable farmer?

The greatest challenge for most farmers, if not all, is an uninformed, but worst yet, a misinformed public. When food is readily available, as it is in this country, it is very easy to not to understand the challenges farmers face: from weather events, to pests and diseases, to governmental regulations, to increased costs and decreasing revenues, to an increase in imports and world markets, to all sorts of far reaching radicals, to increased development which has resulted in the state of Florida having a decrease in natural resources such as water, and the list goes on and on. Farmers, such as myself, continue to do what we do because we have a passion and pride for farming and for carrying on a legacy of generations before us, and feeding this great nation. 

How does a farmer know what a retailer will want a year from now?

In the produce market we keep in constant contact with our buyers who have a pulse on what the end user wants, but at the end of the day, every day, so long as you pack a good, safe product at a reasonable price, you will be over three-quarters of way there.

What steps are you taking toward conservation on the farm?

We closely follow what are known as Best Management Practices or BMP’s, which are standards such as optimal fertilizer and chemical usage rates for crop production. These standards were derived from scientific tests conducted by The University of Florida, our land grant university, in order to promote and maximize environmental conservation. In addition, we laser level our land on a regular basis, we use automatic on/off water pump switches to maintain optimal water levels, quickly turn crops around in order to maximize residual nutrients that may be available in the ground, and plant cover crops in our rainy season to minimize soil erosion, to name a few.

Do you sell any of your products locally, and if so, what is the process?

The majority of our product is shipped out of state. The little we do keep local is sold through distributers who supply the markets and restaurants.

What kinds of reactions do you get from consumers when they meet you in person?

Fortunately or unfortunately, the number one quote, by far, I get is, “I didn’t even know there was any farming in South Florida anymore.” Once I explain to them that Palm Beach County is the largest agricultural producing county in the state and one of the top in the nation for winter production, they become very interested in knowing more about what I do and about the agriculture in their own backyard. People have become so far removed from agriculture that when I get the opportunity to talk to them, it takes them back to the “good ol’ days” of when their granddad took them to the farm.