Disaster Strikes – Opportunity Knocks: American Farms in Collier County

As it barreled up the Atlantic towards the state of Florida, meteorologists and news anchors warned of potentially devastating winds, floods and rains. Floridians watched with trepidation as the National Hurricane Center updates aired on local news stations. Heading west towards Miami, the category 5 storm came to be known as “the big one”.

That was the start of American Farms nearly 26 years ago. Hurricane Andrew, known for its lasting impacts in South Florida was the catalyst for a new era of building codes and improvements to weather modeling. The hurricane didn’t spare growers on the east coast, but on the west coast American Farms in Golden Gates Estates moved into the market to provide flowering annuals to new clients. Today that 10 same acre parcel has grown to over 90 acres of annual and perennial ornamental plants, “That hurricane put us in the market.” says Alex Salazar, one of the owners of American Farms.

Photo of impacts of Hurricane Irma at American Farms in Collier County, FL

That weather event wasn’t the last the farm would see. They went through Hurricane Wilma in 2005 and 2017, in particular, proved to be a challenging year for the wholesaler nestled in southeastern Collier County. In April of 2017, 100 foot tall wildfire flames consumed trucks and trailers, left greenhouses destroyed and operations interrupted.

In September of 2017 Hurricane Irma barreled through Naples, 125+ mph winds twisted newly rebuild greenhouses and flooding covered the property with over 15 inches of rain. Salazar reflects, “All of the rain gauges were overflowing”.

A view of the wildfire from American Farms.

Posted by Greater Naples Fire Rescue District on Monday, April 24, 2017

Video from Greater Naples Fire Rescue District

Significant losses from both events included equipment, planting material, the costs of clean-ups and rebuilding. The American Farm team is currently figuring out how to salvage some of the greenhouses, manage sunburnt plants and how to use these experiences to better prepare them for the next trial Mother Nature propels their way.

Photo of impacts of Hurricane Irma at American Farms in Collier County, FL

One common theme has stayed with American Farms over the years. American Farms farming philosophy and practice is focused around the community and their employees. With about 200 year round workers, American Farms knew their first priority after Irma was ensuring employees were safe and had access to essentials. With generous donations from suppliers and the Community Day School, they were able to provide important commodities such as food, water, diapers, and ice. As a serious gas shortage loomed in Florida, the company provided fuel to their employees as they traveled back and forth between the farm and their homes to tend to damage. American Farms partners and managers fired up the grill and fed employees for days following the storm.

Photo from https://www.facebook.com/American.Farms

Storms can be catastrophic to people, businesses and institutions. But sometimes, it’s not all bad news. Sometimes, large weather and climate events can surprise us with the opportunities they present, and as a community it behooves us to find that silver lining. 26 years ago, American Farms was just a dream to Salazar and his partners. Today, the farm produces over 30 million plants every year, most of their sales coming from Walmart and private contractors in the region and as far north as Michigan. They’ve become an economic agricultural engine to the area. And now again, decades after the impacts of Hurricane Andrew, Hurricane Irma and the 2017 wildfires provide American Farms with another opportunity to improvise and innovate. Alex Salazar, one of the company owners says, “We are rebuilding. We have a good market and a good team.”

Education has also been an important component of their innovation. Over the years American Farms has developed a relationship with the University of Florida IFAS Extension in Collier County. They have been guest speakers in IFAS programs sharing their extensive knowledge to educate consumers about proper care of annual perennials, “Our relationship has been extremely good” Salazar says.

The story of American Farms is a story of resiliency. And one seen time and time again in Collier County and the state of Florida. Natural disasters are part of working with the land and despite the setbacks and loses it’s the dedication to employees, courage to innovate and generosity to the local community that help agricultural business like American Farms thrive.

Photo from: https://www.facebook.com/American.Farms

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