By Charles Nelson
Even the most casual observer knows that Hillsborough County has changed dramatically in recent decades. Gone are many of the farms and ranches that were once the foundation of the county’s economy. In their place are multiple new suburbs, businesses and industries that transformed the south county’s character.
One very recent change involves the razing of the Florida Vegetable Corporation’s historic packing plant on US 41 in Apollo Beach. That building was constructed in 1942 after famed Ruskin farmer Paul B. Dickman helped organize the Ruskin Vegetable Cooperative to serve Ruskin farmers.
Seventy-two years later, his grandson, Glenn Dickman, president of Plants of Ruskin, partnered with AltMed Enterprises to form a revolutionary, ultramodern business on that same site as one of only a few government-approved facilities dedicated to cultivating and fashioning medical cannabis products for Florida patients.
Paul B. Dickman planted his first single acre of tomatoes in 1928 following the collapse of the Florida real estate market. After making “a fair return” on that initial crop, he doubled his tomato crop every year. By 1940, he was shipping 64,000 bushels of tomatoes and was touted as the “biggest tomato man” on the West Coast.
During the 1930s, Ruskin growers achieved a modest, although uncertain, prosperity by depending chiefly on the Tampa market. That market access was being provided by the Manatee County Growers Association that Dickman and others had joined to help get their products to market at higher prices. Yet, Dickman and some other farmers believed they could reach further into East Coast markets through better marketing and shipping methods.
In November 1941, Dickman resigned as president of the Manatee group to lead 22 Ruskin-area farmers to a newly organized Ruskin Vegetable Cooperative. This cooperative would ship their products to a wider market under the “Ruskin” brand name. It began operations in 1941 by occupying two packing plants purchased from the Manatee group.
In January 1942, fire destroyed one of the tomato-packing houses along with equipment and supplies. The big metal and wooden structure was a total loss.
By November 1942, a brand-new, state-of-the-art packing plant was completed, with much of the labor supplied by the members of the cooperative itself to save on costs. This newly built, 35,000 sq. ft. concrete and steel plant was believed to be the largest in Florida at the time. It stood on the US 41 site until its recent dismantling.
Market growth was slow at first. 1942 was a difficult start-up year because of the fire, slow plant reconstruction and growing labor shortages that were brought about by competition from higher wage war jobs and fewer migrant workers, unable to travel because of gasoline and tire restrictions.
By 1943, fortunes improved as Cooperative Farmers received $503,408 for their crops during the season, compared to $196,181 for the previous season. Fluctuating vegetable prices kept returns relatively low until 1948, when higher prices finally increased returns to farmers.
In October 1950, Dickman resigned from the cooperative to form his own marketing enterprise and took the Ruskin brand with him. The Ruskin Vegetable Cooperative (later a corporation) continued to serve small Ruskin farmers until challenges from free trade (NAFTA), suburbanization and a host of other problems led to a dramatic drop in the numbers of Ruskin-area farmers.
During the first decade of the new millennium, the packing plant ceased operations. The building stood, largely unused until AltMed began operations in 2018, continuing the site’s cultivation history, albeit with new products and new customers.