IN THE PHOTOS: Left, Dominique “Mingy” Ercoli bales hay on his 90th birthday. Mingy recently passed and left the family farm to his son, Richard Ercoli. Right, Richard Ercoli is pictured with his son, Carson.
THIS IS THE STORY of one family’s rise from the damp, darkened and eerie tunnels of the underground coal mines planted in the roots of Pennsylvania to the bright, shimmering and warm hay fields of Florida.
Richard Ercoli, a lifelong resident and hay farmer of Knights Station, a little community north of Plant City, has made his living by growing hay. Following in the footsteps of his recently deceased father, Dominique Mingo Ercoli, Richard has been growing hay since he was a child. Richard reflects of his father, “Dad really enjoyed farming and growing hay. He liked experimenting and seeing what came out of trying different fertilizers with the hay. He would use different amounts of fertilizers on different grasses just to see how it would come out.”
Richard’s dad “Mingy” (as his family and friends called him), along with the rest of his siblings, was brought to a new beginning in 1919 by his father and mother, Daniel and Rosa Ercoli, and this same land is now considered the family homestead. Mingy was only two years old at the time.
Traveling by train a few years in advance to scout out property for farming, Daniel saw this piece of earth that lay bright and green (most contrastingly to his previous profession – above ground) and immediately called it home.
Daniel had to return to Pennsylvania for a short time to continue working in the coal mines until the land was paid for. After two years and a lung full of coal dust, Daniel decided it was time to leave the bleak, bitter and forlorn entrapment of the dreary coal mining town and make the long-awaited journey to Florida to start a new and better life for his family. This had been the hope that Daniel clung to for so many years and it was finally happening — a life that would be full of bright sunshine days while being able to toil the earth and give back to it in return.
Fast forward two decades and on August 5, 1940, Mingy married Goldie Ham and together they worked on the family farm. Shortly thereafter, he started growing hay to feed his own cattle.
During the ’40s, Alice Clover was a popular variety of hay. Then in the ’50s, Pangola was grown for several years. Richard relays, “Dad grew hay in those days to feed his own cows, including the milk cow.”
By about the mid-’70s, Mingy decided to start growing hay commercially. Senior Ercoli contacted the Ona Research Center, an experimental station in Ona, Florida, for the production of hay. Bermuda grasses were suggested as the best hay to grow for cattle and horses. Pangola and Alicia hay were grown predominantly in Central Florida due to the rise in the horse industry for pleasure riders. These grasses are high in protein and are considered a good feed for both. During this time, square bales sold for $2.50 to $3 per bale and rolls sold for $25 to $30 each.
In the early ’80s, the agriculture department in Tifton, Georgia, produced a grass called Tifton 44. This is a grass that is predominately grown for horses because of its protein value.
Hay production is designed to be grown and harvested four times a year. Of course, being defenseless to weather conditions and other natural circumstances, three cuttings and sometimes two are all that can be cut from a field. Insects such as army worms are one of hay’s natural enemies. They can destroy a complete crop of hay.
Today, nearly a century later, Richard continues the family business and the tradition by growing and baling his own hay for his cattle as well as for other ranchers, just as his grandfather and father did. He is now teaching his son how to grown and nurture one of the cattle industry’s most important crops and to care for the land. Richard wants to instill in his son, Carson, as well as everyone that if we take care of the land God has given us, He will allow the land to take care of us.
story by DALE BLISS