FreightWaves Flashback 1963 – Offshore vegetable farms moved from Cuba

The many industries that make up the world of freight have undergone tremendous change over the past several decades. Each Friday, FreightWaves explores the archives of American Shipper’s nearly 70-year-old collection of shipping and maritime publications to showcase interesting freight stories of long ago.

The following is an excerpt from the April 1963 edition of the Florida Journal of Commerce magazine, which over the years grew into American Shipper. FreightWaves acquired American Shipper in July 2019.

Click here to view the entire edition of the Florida Journal of Commerce – April 1963.

WEST PALM BEACH – With the inadvertent help of Fidel Castro the men of Florida’s farming community are proving that, like their historic forefathers, they are rugged individualists who can conquer adversity and come back stronger than ever.

Castro created the problem when he gained power in Cuba in the summer of 1959. One of his first acts was to seize the major farming lands, ostensibly to divide them among the Cuban peasants, who had been the backbone of the island’s revolutionary movement.

The land seizure was a severe blow to many, among them Florida truck farmers who for many years had grown crops in Cuba that couldn’t be produced in Florida during the colder winter months.

Forced to give up their Cuban operations, these Florida farmers responded in typical American tradition. Moving to new lands – east of the Florida peninsula – they launched rebuilding programs and quickly rebounded.

One of these was Scott-Mattson Farms, a large grower-shipper organization of Florida’s east coast with packing houses at Ft. Pierce and Pompano Beach.

Scott-Mattson had farmed in Cuba during the pre-Castro winters, producing primarily tomatoes and cucumbers. Then came the summer of 1959, Castro and land seizure.

“It was a real problem,” says Ray Weeks, a Scott-Mattson packing house and sales manager, “because this Cuban farming was essential to our year-round operation. However, our officials immediately began to reset their sights and the very first winter after Castro took over Cuba, we had crops growing in the Bahamas after starting from scratch.”

Scott-Mattson moved first to Great Abaco Island, then expanded to Andros Island, both in the Bahamas group. The first crops from a new operation at Haiti have been imported into Florida since the first of the year.

The forced exodus from Cuba resulted not only in new farm land development but also in the addition of new crops. Formerly only a vegetable producer, Scott-Mattson has now turned to fruit commodities.

For instance, a couple of weeks ago a small ship docked at Port of Palm Beach with the firm’s first load of cantaloupes from Haiti. According to Weeks, these are the only cantaloupes available in this country except for a small amount being flown in from Panama and Nicaragua. Weeks notes three ships brought 700-800 wirebound crates of cantaloupes to this country each week through the month of February.

Scott-Mattson Farms will also harvest its first honeydew melons later this month in Haiti. Other products grown there and imported through the Palm Beach port include cucumbers, eggplant, okra and watermelon.

Scott-Mattson owns five converted LCIs (landing craft infantry), equipped with modern refrigeration equipment to help preserve the produce while enroute from the island to the U.S. At times the company leases up to five additional small watercraft.

Off-shore farming presents various difficulties. For example, the necessity for proper packaging for protection during the sea trip was pointed up when one of the first loads of cantaloupes encountered a fairly severe storm off the Florida coast.

“Because we used the 2/3 wirebound cantaloupe crate and carefully loaded the ships, we were able to bring the shipment in undamaged,” proudly reports Bob Huntsman, a Scott-Mattson representative at the Port of Palm Beach.

Wirebound wooden containers, such as the Universal crate (1-1/9 bushel) and the half-Universal, are also utilized to package other commodities grown off-shore. These containers must meet the strength requirements necessary because of the additional stress they get – in handling on the islands, in ship loading and unloading, and stacked in the ships’ holds – in comparison with stateside packages.

“In any farming, containers are an important factor, of course,” stated Weeks. “In off-shore farming the need for additional protection magnifies their importance. They must be tough!”

Evidently, this applies to the farmers, too.