Brooks Tropicals may be a multinational, but employees know how to celebrate

By Deborah S. Hartz
Food Editor

December 29, 2005

Brooks Tropicals in Homestead is a bit of a hybrid. It's owned by Neal Palmer (Pal) Brooks, a third-generation farmer; his two sons are on the board of directors. And while Brooks Tropicals owns the South Florida land where it raises some of the avocados it sells, most of the land it oversees is in Belize. The company also contracts with local farmers who supply tropical fruits that Brooks packs and sells.

What makes Brooks Tropicals feel like a family farm is that many of its employees come from farm families themselves.

Like CEO Craig Wheeling, who is a fourth-generation Miami farmer. His great grandfather was a dairy farmer in Bergen, Norway. His family started the Hialeah Dairy in 1909.

"In those days, all of Hialeah was cattle," he says. His mother would tell him stories about filling a 50-gallon drum with rattlesnakes they killed before opening a field to cattle. His family sold that farm in 1960 when they moved to Homestead to grow avocados.

Director of marketing Mary Ostlund says her aunt and uncle have an avocado grove in Homestead that Brooks manages for them.

And harvest manager Ronnie Barnes was in tomato packing with his father before getting into avocados and then coming to work for Brooks Tropicals.

"I've been in South Florida all my life," he says. "I'm one of the few." In fact, his grandfather was on the town charter of Pompano Beach and his aunt Edna Smith was the first female born in Pompano Beach, he tells us as he leads us on a tour of avocado groves in a well-worn Jeep.

We drive by fields of red dirt. "That's why they call this area the Redlands," he explains.

He shows us avocado trees, roots skyward after Hurricane Wilma did her damage. Avocado trees can be righted and replanted. But the Brooks processing plant stands idle at a time when it should be at its busiest. Remaining trees yield far from their usual output. There's been a lot of damage this year.

Pal's family came to the area when his grandmother was ill and needed the warm moist air for her health. In 1926, the family went into real estate and then grew grapefruit until the Great Depression when the bottom fell out of the market. Then they went into mangoes, avocados and limes.

Pal took over from his father in 1967 when Florida avocado acreage tripled. The company also was the nation's biggest producer of Persian limes.

In 1992, Hurricane Andrew's devastation affected the mango crop. Then in 1995, citrus canker hit the fruit trees and 202,000 uninfected lime trees had to be destroyed to ensure the blight wouldn't spread.

"We quit counting the trees we had to cut. It was not a fun time," Wheeling says.

Brooks sold much of their landholdings in South Florida. "After that, sadly but true, our company transferred off shore," Pal says. Their papaya operations started with leasing 30 acres in Belize. Today, Brooks Tropicals is the single largest papaya supplier to North America. Their papaya brands can be found in most local stores with Brooks' Caribbean Red (3- to 4-pound Maradol papayas) and Caribbean Sunrise (1- to 2-pound Solo papayas). Their operation has grown to more than 1,600 acres in Belize and employs 1,000 people there.

"The biggest things that kicked us out [of South Florida] is the weather and the price of land," Pal says. The Homestead and Belize operations are connected by fiber optics and satellite; they meet once or twice a day by video camera.

Today, Brooks carries more than 30 different tropical fruits and vegetables. Its largest crop is the South American papayas. But Florida avocados, or SlimCados, are Brooks' second-largest crop with the fruit grown on more than 3,500 acres in Miami-Dade.

Due to an "emotional attachment," Pal still devotes some very expensive real estate to avocados.

He also grows star fruit in Homestead and on Pine Island, which is off the coast of Fort Myers. The bulk of carambolas grown in the United States are found there.

"If I wasn't in agriculture, I'd go into something else. But agriculture is vibrant, interesting and changing," Pal says.

When we asked the people at Brooks Tropicals to share some of their New Year's recipes, they did better than that. They hosted a potluck. Many of their recipes are ones they prepare when they want to entertain each other and friends.