Florida Keys Farming of Pineapples and Tomatoes was once a thriving industry here
Florida Keys farming began as a necessity. Each family would grow whatever fruits and vegetables they could to sustain themselves. Others grew more than they needed so they could trade it with their neighbors, if they had any, and for other goods that were difficult to find.
The first fruit trees were thought to have been brought over to the Florida Keys from the Bahamas. The Bahamians knew which fruit trees would grow in the limestone soil here, it was the same soil as in the Bahamas. Sapodilla, guava, date palm, mango and key limes , bananas and tomatoes were just some of the fruits and vegetables grown by the early farmers in the Florida Keys.
The Upper Keys had the most productive Florida Keys farming industry. They received about 20 more inches of rain each year than the Lower Keys and Key West .
Indian Key and a few other nearby islands were cleared to start one of the first Florida Keys farming industries. This was in 1838. In 1840 the Indians attacked the island killing the owner, Dr. Perrine and burning the whole island. Other plantations were destroyed and the owners killed as far up the Keys as Key Largo. Their farms were also burnt to the ground.
Key West had become so crowded during the Civil War that there was no area to grow food. People were moved to places like Cape Sable for the purpose of growing food for the people of Key West.
In 1860 Captain Ben Baker, a “wrecker ” was the first to start a Florida Keys farming industry with pineapples. He did this in Plantation Key and Key Largo. This was near Carysfort Reef where many ships ran aground. He could farm his pineapples and keep a watch out for a ship to run up onto the reef .
In 1870 Benjamin Baker was the first postmaster in the Rock Harbor, Key Largo area. He was also into Florida Keys farming of pineapples. Records in 1882 shows that he homesteaded 160 acres in what is now Rock Harbor. Early records show that he would make as much as seven thousand dollars each summer from the sale of the pineapples.
Records from 1882 tell about many of the islands that were being cleared for Florida Keys farming. The farming industry stretched all the way from Key Largo to Key West. Many different crops such as tropical fruits, pineapples, tomatoes, beets, carrots, cabbage, Irish and sweet potatoes, melons and turnips were flourishing here. As much as $200,000 worth of pineapples alone were being harvested and sold.
One newspaper article stated that “The best melons for this season come from Key Largo.”
The soil was different in the 1800 from what it is today. There was this reddish colored soil that was found in what the locals called “red holes.” These holes measured 15 to 30 feet in diameter. Fruit trees and crops were planted in these holes. The soil was shallow but was all soil, no rocks. All the farmer had to do after planting was keep the weeds out. The climate and rain did the rest.
Pineapples can be grown from a seed, from a sucker or the crown of the plant. Seeds can take up to ten years to produce a fruit. Suckers or the crown will produce a ripe fruit within twelve to twenty four months. These were usually planted at the beginning of the rainy season.
Florida Keys farming was a new industry in the 1800's. Fishing, catching turtles, sponging and wrecking were the industries here. Farming was good here but they had no means of getting the perishable goods to far away markets. Key West was the local market but it only needed a small quantity of the product. This was limited by the population of the area. Larger quantities were taken to Key West then shipped north.
Steamships were replacing sailing ships. Lighthouses were being placed along the reef of the Florida Keys. This made transport of fruits and vegetables possible but it was still a four to six day trip after getting the product to Key West. One way to speed up the delivery was to hire or lease a locally owned sailboat and take the goods straight to other seaports. One trip was made by wrecker “Hog” Johnson on his wrecking ship. He loaded his pineapples from Key Largo and arrived in New Jersey five days later.
In the 1880's a pineapple cannery opened in Key West near where the Pier House is today. It operated for about 10 years. Soon another pineapple cannery opened on Eaton Street. They processed Cuban pineapples. It closed after the 1935 hurricane destroyed the Henry Flagler Railroad. A tomato cannery was opened on Upper Matecumbe Key. It was soon converted into a pineapple cannery. It too was destroyed by the 1906 hurricane and the building washed away in the 1935 Hurricane.
The Flagler Railroad made it possible to get goods from the Florida Keys to Jacksonville in two days. Flagler charged more to the local farmers for transporting their products than to the imports.
The railroad was completed to Key West from the mainland. Pineapples were shipped from Havana to Key West then repacked and carried north in box cars. These cheaper Cuban pineapples caused the superior Florida Keys pineapple industry to collapse. Key Lime farming then replaced the pineapple farming. The Florida Keys were shipping out 100,000 crates of Key Limes a year. Packing houses were constructed near the railroad stations. Soon the seedless Persian lime was introduced and grown in South Dade County. This was the end of the Key lime farming in the Florida Keys.
The Overseas Highway opened in 1928. More people had access to the Florida Keys. Fishing camps sprang up, and charter fishing was introduced as an industry. Farm land was found to be more valuable if it was developed. Developments to the north where canals were dredged to drain the land and to prevent flooding decreased the surface fresh water. Dredging the deeper canals in the Keys lowered the fresh water table by five to seven feet. This caused farming to be more difficult. The size of the farms got smaller.
The fatal blow came with the 1935 Hurricane, it marked the end of Florida Keys farming as an industry.
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