Dragon fruit appears everywhere. So why are farmers leaving the business?

HOMESTED, Florida. Dragon fruit, the colorful cactus fruit also known as pitaya, has brought its subtle flavor to everything from Taco Bell iced tea to Starbucks fruit drinks this summer. So you might think that the farmers are going to have a big year.

But things are not so rosy in Florida.

In early June, when the pink, prickly fruit bulbs were ready to be harvested from the cactus, farmers learned that they would receive as little as a penny a pound of fruit, which could be sold at the grocery store for $7.99 a pound.

“Everyone was expecting a great year,” said Elida Santos, who owns Dragon Fruit Nature Farm north of Homestead with her uncle. But no one did.

Problem? Too much dragon fruit due to the recent influx of food grown in Ecuador.

The flow of Ecuadorian fruit is “a once in a lifetime thing,” said Peter Leifermann, vice president of sales for Brooks Tropicals, a distributor that works with a select number of dragonfruit farmers in Florida.

Dragon fruit growers in Florida have long competed with farmers in Ecuador, Peru and Vietnam. But this year, Ecuadorian farmers have extended the dragonfruit season just as it began in Florida in June, most likely due to unusual weather patterns and a push to sell the fruit in the face of inflation and civil unrest in the country, Mr. Leifermann said. This coincidence with the Florida season was a major blow to South Florida farmers, whose budgets were constrained by inflation and high labor costs.

Dragon fruit usually grows here from June to November. During the rest of the year, cacti require expensive round-the-clock maintenance, including lots of water, fertilizer, and pruning.

Distributors such as Brooks Tropicals are increasingly selling Ecuadorian dragonfruit, Mr. Leifermann said, because those growers have provided reliable supplies in recent years as Florida farmers struggled with labor shortages during the pandemic. Ecuador also has a longer dragon fruit season than Florida, averaging eight months in winter and spring.

Ecuadorian dragonfruit is also more attractive to many retailers because it is usually larger than the Florida varieties, Mr. Leifermann said.

After investing nearly $600,000 last year on his 10-acre Homestead farm, Victor Farinas called his distributors in June to let them know his crop was almost ready. But they were so inundated with Ecuadorian fruit, he said, that they couldn’t take it. Mr. Farinas decided to close the business he started in 2008.

He said he would lose even more money if he picked fruit and sold it himself. So he opened the gates to his farm and allowed people to pick and take home fruit for free. He is now selling 1,500 dragon fruit trees for $80 each on the side of a busy road near his farm.

Demand for dragon fruit has been growing over the past 20 years, thanks in part to its reputation as a nutrient-dense fruit, said Dr. Jonathan Crane, associate director of the Center for Tropical Research and Education at the University of Florida. The fruits, which are usually red, pink or yellow depending on the variety, are only slightly sweet and have a taste reminiscent of a pear.

Dragon fruit requires long sunny days to bloom and bear fruit. Farmers have been able to extend the season by a month or more by using artificial lights at night, Dr. Crane said.

Foreign competition is not the only problem for Florida farmers. Ms. Santos of Dragon Fruit Nature Farms said the drought in South Florida has damaged her crop, resulting in smaller fruits than consumers want.

All summer long, Mrs. Santos sold her fruits from a roadside stall so that food would not go to waste. But she got much less than if she sold fruit to her usual distributors.

This year’s dragon fruit season came as a painful reminder for Rafael Morera of the South Florida Dragon Fruit Association, who retired from growing avocados in 2011 for many of the same reasons.

He sold the land and soon started with five acres of dragon fruit, eventually expanding to 52 acres. The demand for fruit in the last three years has been overwhelming. “I couldn’t land fast enough,” he said. Morera’s group represents his own farm and eight other dragon fruit growers, at least 30 percent of which are in South Florida.

He says his costs, including labor, fertilizer, pallet boxes and crates, are up 38 percent this year. But because of the surplus of Ecuadorian fruit, he had to throw away 600,000 pounds of carefully packaged fruit because he couldn’t sell it. The Ecuadorian dragon fruit was selling for a penny a pound but had a break-even price of 72 cents.

Toward the middle of the season, he began to sell some of his fruit at a loss. Distributors are now taking his fruit at the prices he sold it for last year, but he won’t be able to make up for previous seasonal losses. Many farmers, such as Mr. Morera, hope that they will harvest more fruit in November. It will look for small buds on the dragon fruit tree, which will bloom, and then white-red flesh will grow in about a month.

“It’s really hard to bounce back from that,” Mr. Morera said of the season. If there is a flood of Ecuadorian fruits next year, he said, “everyone leaves.”

Until this year, Mr. Morera continued to expand his dragon fruit farm. Now, to recoup these losses, he has sold five acres to someone who uses the land to build a house. “It’s an expensive hobby,” Mr. Morera said. “You can only be passionate to this extent.”

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