Title: 2003 Ag-Environmental: Sun City Tree Farm
Type: Agricultural-Environmental Leadership Award
Jean Claude “J.C.” Tort, Co-owner, Sun City Tree Farm: We have a big pond and when it rains a lot during the rainy season, the ponds fills up and then we use this water to water one of our locations, the whole time. So we have to be, very careful about what we use because if we run out, we run out and that’s it.
Like many agricultural enterprises in the Tampa Bay area, Sun City Tree Farm constantly deals with critical water constraints. Each year, the Ruskin farm has to balance its potential for growth with the conditions of permitted water use. But innovation and adaptability are the hallmarks of Sun City Tree Farm, and despite the area’s critical water concerns, the farm has managed to thrive and diversify. To reduce its draw on groundwater, surface ponds collect and retain rainwater to be used in irrigation. An automated system of drip emitters was installed to periodically apply small quantities of water to the plants. Fabric bags are used instead of plastic pots to allow root systems to draw water not just from the irrigation system, but from the surrounding soil as well. While these low-tech approaches may seem like common sense solutions, the results are quite uncommon; while Sun City Tree Farm continues to expand, it uses only sixty percent of its permitted water.
The ability to adapt and thrive is nothing new to Sun City owners, brothers Jean Claude “J.C.” and Eric Tort. Born in Morocco to farming parents, the Torts saw their family lose everything when the North African country was nationalized in 1958, and their father Henri moved the family back to his native France
Eric Tort, Co-owner, Sun City Tree Farm: When we lost our business in Morocco, my parents went to France but they could never really get used to this life. And they wanted to get going and America was for them. It’s really the last best place in the world.
Again Henri Tort moved his family, this time to America’s west coast. But disillusioned with California’s expensive grape country, the Torts began driving along the Gulf states in search of new farmland. They finally settled in Ruskin and purchased a 400-acre orange grove. Later, frustrated by freezes and diminishing returns, the family sold their grove and in 1988 started Sun City Tree Farm.
JC Tort: Sun City Tree Farm has three locations with a total of a 150 acres and the total number of trees we have is over a 100,000. Sun City Tree Farm grows trees for the Florida landscape, so we grow a lot of natives. It’s about the usual, you know, nothing out of the ordinary.
While their selection of trees may not be out of the ordinary, the innovative ways in which they address the needs of their farm are. The Torts have created or modified several pieces of farm equipment to minimize labor and improve efficiency. For instance, their harvesting trailer was built from scratch. It was constructed with every consideration for the farm’s layout and includes a hydraulic crane for ease in moving large trees.
One of Sun City’s innovations is adapting fabric bags for growing plants instead of using the traditional plastic pots. The roots of trees grown in plastic pots typically wind around inside the pot. Once transplanted into the ground the winding continues, making the tree’s shallow roots vulnerable to strong winds. The bags, on the other hand, improve the strength of the root system by letting it grow down through the fabric. The fabric method also allows the plants to access soil moisture. As a result, the trees grow faster, while further reducing the need for irrigation. Presently this method is used for 80 percent of the trees on the farm.
After more than ten years of development, the brothers have also perfected a clamp-and-tether system that’s creating interest in the industry. The Tree Clamp is a reusable and adjustable strap that protects trees from wind and damage. By allowing the tree to mature with less restraint, the farm has seen an increase in savings, through a higher yield of healthy trees.
After the trees are moved, an unused fertilizer spreader from the old citrus groves, modified to deliver soil and control its placement, is brought in to help re-pot. By moving the re-potting process to the field, the farm has seen a tremendous saving of time and energy
The brothers also designed a unique potting station as well. Potting soil is placed in the V- shaped bin and as needed, dispensed to the waist-high production table where workers, under the shade of a large canopy, pot young trees for placement in the nearby fields -- a seemingly simple construction developed for the workers’ comfort and effectiveness as a time saver.
Responsible stewardship is evident in the scientific methods that Sun City Tree Farm has adopted. To reduce the use of pesticides, integrated pest management is used. A trained scout combs the farm for evidence of harmful insect pests, allowing for spot applications of pesticide. Not only is the use and cost of pesticide substantially reduced, beneficial insects are not destroyed. The farm ensures that these pesticides and fertilizers are stored appropriately and that employees are educated in the proper ways of applying fertilizers and pesticides, as well as the use of safety uniforms.
But in the Tampa Bay area, responsible stewardship always comes back to water usage. In cooperation with the University of Florida, ongoing studies on irrigation are conducted at the farm. One study uses irrometers to establish exactly how much water is needed to produce a healthy tree, while lysimeters monitor salt and fertilizer penetration. Through these studies the industry will benefit both in water conservation and cost savings.
JC Tort: It is very important because this is something we can’t do. We don’t have the knowledge, and those guys are really specialized in what they’re doing, and we volunteered to give labor and data, but it has to be done with them.
With its desire to work with research facilities, to continually experiment with new production methods, and to share the knowledge it has gained with the rest of the industry, Sun City Tree Farm has established itself as an agricultural leader. And yet, for the Tort brothers, recognizing the beauty of their product is the true reward.
Eric Tort: People come out to our farm and really say, “Well this place is beautiful.” This, for us, the best reward, especially getting the compliment from other growers which have the same problem that we do. It’s hard work but it’s the best thing we can hear.