Raymond R. “Rick” Roth Jr. is the only son of a very successful second-generation Belle Glade farmer, the late Ray R. Roth. He has been farming in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) in Palm Beach County, Florida for 44 years. Rick holds a BS degree in Mathematics from Emory University, graduating in 1976. His love for agriculture became apparent when he returned home from college to work for a season.
Roth recalled, “My dad never pressured me to follow in his footsteps but gave me the freedom to make up my own mind, a choice I appreciate to this day. I gave my son, Ryan, the same freedom to choose.” That college break clearly showed him how dynamic winter vegetable farming was.
Roth recalled, “One of the most important things I got from Dad and Junior—the first African-American farm manager in the EAA—was how to treat people respectfully and honestly, regardless of race, level of education, or background. Dad also listened to his employees and appreciated innovative ideas about improving crop yields in a safe, efficient manner. He put together a diversified farming operation that remains the foundation of what we’re doing now. What he meant to me as a man and to the business is incalculable.”
Today Roth Farms employs 25 full-time staff and approximately 150 seasonal workers, both local and H2A labor. It is one of the most diversified farming operations in the state with some of the best soil anywhere. Roth explained what makes it so special.
“Muck is a high-nitrogen soil that holds moisture extremely well. We raise water levels in canals to irrigate and use overhead irrigation only for planting. These muck soils are part of the original Everglades, staying flooded 300 days per year before the influx of people into south Florida required the taming of Lake Okeechobee. Sub-tropical weather, water supply, topography, and homogenous soil make this the best farmland in the world.”
Currently Roth Farms has 3996 acres under production with yields as follows: 2194 acres of sugar cane yielding 55.3 gross tons/acre; 910 acres of radishes yielding 353 cartons/acre; 775 acres of rice yielding 45.6 cwt; 640 acres of lettuce and leafy vegetables yielding 850 cartons/acre; 197 acres of herbs and greens yielding 950 cartons/acre; 110 acres of sod yielding 28,700 sq. ft./acre; 73 acres of Asian vegetables yielding 950 cartons/acre; 69 acres of celery yielding 900 cartons/acre.
Roth Farms uses three sales agencies to market its crops: Gary Norman Produce, Wilkinson-Cooper, and Ray’s Heritage. Its rice has been processed and marketed by Sem-Chi Rice, Inc. since 1983. Its sod is sold through another grower in Belle Glade.
Roth remembered, “As early as 1994, I realized I needed to be at least a part owner of a packing house facility. That was the beginning of Ray’s Heritage, LLC, named in honor of my father.”
This state-of-the-art 60,000 square foot insulated concrete tilt wall packing house opened in April 2007. Roth noted, “Our packing house is the key to sustainable vegetable production. It allows us to maintain the crop rotation of vegetables, sugar cane, and rice that my dad started in 1980. It is the secret to higher yields, fewer inputs, and soil conservation.”
Located in the Belle Glade Industrial Park, Ray’s Heritage leases space to Roth Farms to grade, process, cool (using ammonia refrigeration), and pack 700,000 – 12 to 14 lb. per carton radish packages for Roth Farms and Frontier Produce. The facility also operates a wholesale green bean pack line. Lettuce, leafy vegetables, and herbs from Roth Farms and other growers are vacuum-cooled by the pallet, with each pallet holding 35 boxes. Once cooled, the produce is placed in cold storage rooms at 35 degrees F. and then trucked to distribution centers of major retailers in the eastern and central United States and Canada.
In 2019, Roth Farms started a new joint venture, Southern Growers, LLC with Hilliard Brothers, Inc. and began harvesting sweet corn in 2020. Roth noted, “Diversification and joint ventures have a proven history of increasing production and lowering risks in the EAA.”
On the county level, Roth is a board member and former president of Western Palm Beach County Farm Bureau (WPBCFB), a board member of Sugarcane Growers Cooperative, a member of Palm Beach County Ag Enhancement Council, a founding member and former president of the Florida Rice Council, and was named Palm Beach County Conservationist of the Year in 1993, and the WPBCFB EAA Farm Family of the Year in 2005.
On the state level, Roth served as Vice President of FFBF from 2000 to 2010. Roth has served as State Representative, District 85 since 2016. He commented, “Agriculture in Palm Beach County has always been a key player in public policy and elections. I became very involved as WPBCFB president beginning in 1986. After our company underwent a major management reorganization and my son took on more operational responsibilities in 2015, I felt the time was right to step up and run for public office.”
Roth is a board member of Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association (FFVA), a co-founder of FFBF District 8 County Conference, a member of FFBF Trade and Sugar advisory committees, and a member of the Florida Ag Council (UF) as well as numerous other industry associations in the past. On the national level Roth served for many years on the AFBF Sugar Advisory Committee and Southern Farm Bureau Life Insurance Company Board of Directors.
Roth’s wife, Carolyn Jean “Jeanie” Roth, was pursuing a college education and career in merchandising and marketing when the two met in 1974 by accident in her West Palm Beach neighborhood. “The next day I bought a suit where she worked so I could attend a FFVA convention. I say it was divine timing, not a coincidence. There are no coincidences in my book.”
Jeanie was from a farming background as well. The two dated for three-and-a-half years and have been married for forty-two years. She has been a Western Palm Beach County Farm Bureau member since 1978 and has served on the Women’s Committee of the WPBC Farm Bureau since 2000. She and Rick are founding members of the Truth Point Church in West Palm Beach.
Rick and Jeanie Roth have three adult children: Lindsay McKeen 38, Ryan Roth 37, and Ashley Alexander 34, and three grandchildren, Hannah McKeen 9, Ezra McKeen 5, and Ella Roth 8. Daughter Lindsay and her husband, Jeremy McKeen, founded Truth Point Church in West Palm Beach four months after he graduated from Knox Theological Seminary in 2009. Daughter Ashley Alexander graduated from Nova Southeast College in 2015 and is now a registered ER nurse in Orlando.
Just after graduating from the University of Florida in 2005 with a BS degree in Food and Resource Economics, son Ryan Roth started working at the family farm in the leaf operation. His proud dad said, “Through the years, Ryan has taken on more responsibilities for the farm, and in 2013 he assumed the role of General Manager of Roth Farms. Along with management duties, he is the crop protection chemical expert and makes all the crop management and vegetable harvesting decisions.”
In 1995, farmers in the EAA were mandated to enact Best Management Practices for the reduction of phosphorus runoff. Roth Farm uses crop rotation, improved water control through culverts with risers on all blocks, and additional control structures to divide the farm into subsections. This measure provides improved drainage to flood-damaged vegetables and maintains a higher water table on sugar, cane, and sod. Higher water tables reduce soil oxidation.
Roth Farms is now able to grow vegetables at higher water tables due to better water control. Land taken out of cane in the autumn goes into vegetables, which improves drainage on vegetables. After vegetable harvest, the rice crop is planted and flooded rice fields conserve soil while killing weeds and pests with water.
As Roth noted, “We plant all sugar cane behind rice in the fall with no insecticides. And, with increased sweet corn production, there is less land available for rice, so we also grow sorghum as a cover crop. Ground rigs spray all vegetables except sweet corn, giving better coverage, control, and fewer applications.”
One of the biggest challenges of Roth’s long career came at the beginning of it when his father died in 1986, and he took over the reins of the business at the start of the environmental wars over the Everglades. He recalled, “The first massive federal lawsuit was filed in 1988 against the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) for polluting the Everglades. Agriculture in the EAA was directly threatened by the penny a pound state constitutional amendment in 1996, which failed. Far from destroying it, EAA farmers and sugar cane producers saved the Everglades.” He added, “We currently produce $1 billion in sugar and $350 million in fresh vegetables annually and meet a 10ppb P standard for storm water entering the Everglades system.”
In the future, Roth plans to continue to add new crops to the farm’s already long list of vegetables as well as increase its value-added vegetable production with new packing in the field. He said, “We will double our sweet corn tray pack operation capacity in 2021 and increase the percentage of our vegetables sold with a fixed price contract. We also plan to increase our one-season sublease acres by rotating our vegetables with other sugar cane farmers looking for a crop rotation that will increase their soil fertility for their sugar cane crop following our production. And lastly, we have plans to increase our sweet corn acreage grown through our joint venture, Southern Growers, LLC.”
The Roth family enjoys an annual summer trip to Beech Mountain, North Carolina. Roth said, “Last year it was quite a happening, with twenty-two Roth clan members getting together in three rental homes to enjoy each other’s company.” Roth also likes tennis, boating, and watching Florida Gator football. But one of the things he has enjoyed most over time is conducting farm tours for students and adults alike. “It’s magical to see people’s faces light up when you explain to them how a farm like ours really works. They become part of that wonderful chain of life process.”
In thinking about life lessons that farming offers, Roth said, “It’s a profession that, needless to say, keeps a person grounded and in learning mode at all times. Some of the most valuable things I’ve observed over the years include the need for patience in decision making, investing in trustworthy employees, collaborating at all times, keeping dialogue open, and delegating responsibility where it’s merited. Over time this approach pays huge dividends and gives life a depth of meaning that may not be present in other types of work. Farming truly is a privilege and a calling.”
Rick Roth was nominated Florida Farmer of the Year for 2020 by Eva Webb, Assistant Director Field Services, District 8, at Florida Farm Bureau Federation. She commented, “Rick is a visionary farmer who is focused on the future and who recognizes the importance of continuing to develop markets. He is a leader and innovator in the area of protecting and conserving soil and water. Always looking at ways to improve and maximize efficiency on his land, Rick consistently welcomes constructive change.”
She added, “He is a strong advocate for science and research as well as land grant universities, believing the best way for farmers to remain competitive in today’s world market is through innovation and crop breeding. Over the years, he has been a fearless spokesperson for the farming community in this area and is highly respected by his peers.”
As the Florida winner of the Swisher/Sunbelt Expo award, Rick Roth will receive a $2,500 cash award and an expense-paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo from Swisher International of Jacksonville, Florida. A Columbia vest from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply will be given to each state winner and nominator. Syngenta will donate $500 to the state winner’s charity of choice. Roth is now eligible for the $15,000 cash prize awarded to the overall winner by Swisher. Massey Ferguson North America will provide each state winner with a gift package and the overall winner with the use of a Massey Ferguson tractor for a year or 250 hours (whichever comes first). A Columbia jacket from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply will be given to the overall winner. Syngenta will provide a $500 donation to the charity of choice for the overall winner who will also receive a Hays LTI Smoker/Grill. In addition, the overall winner will receive a Henry Repeating Arms American Farmer Tribute Edition rifle from Reinke Irrigation.
Swisher International, through its Swisher cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards for the 31st consecutive year. Swisher has contributed some $1,204,000 in cash awards and other honors to southeastern farmers since the award was initiated in 1990.
Previous state winners from Florida include: Ernie Nunez of Dade City, 1990; Ernie Nunez of Dade City, 1991; Wayne Wiggins of Plant City, 1992; Leroy Baldwin of Ocala, 1993; Billy Long of Apopka, 1994; Richard Barber of Ocala, 1995; Al Bellotto of Lakeland, 1996; Rex Clonts of Apopka, 1997; John Hoblick of DeLeon Springs, 1998; Doug Holmberg of Valrico, 1999; Damon Deas of Jennings, 2000; Gene Batson of Mount Dora, 2001; William Putnam of Alturas, 2002; Sonny Williamson of Okeechobee, 2003; Dale Sauls of Anthony, 2004; Louis “Red” Larson of Okeechobee, 2005; Damon Deas of Jennings, 2006; Alto “Bud” Adams of Ft. Pierce, 2007; Randy Strode of Longwood, 2008; Cary Lightsey of Lake Wales, 2009; John Hundley of North Palm Beach, 2010; Ron St. John of Trenton, 2011; Dale McClellan of Thonotosassa, 2012; John Scott Long of Palm City, 2013; C. Dennis Carlton of Tampa, 2014; Vic Story, Jr., of Lake Wales, 2015; Paul DiMare of Coral Gables, 2016; and Mark Wilson of Homestead, 2017; Lynetta Usher Griner of Chiefland, FL, 2018, Charles W. Obern of Clewiston, 2019.