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NAPLES, FL -- As members of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association were getting ready to gather at the Ritz-Carlton Naples Sept. 18-21 for the 67th annual FFVA convention, the business end of farming was top-of-mind.

Labor shortages, new water regulations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, food safety and modern marketing are ever-present concerns, and for the most part dominated the convention agenda.

"A lot of the issues we're dealing with seem like they’ve always been with us and are the kind that keep growers awake at night," Lisa Lochridge, director of public affairs for the association, told The Produce News Sept. 15. “The labor situation is extremely important, but we’re not sure what’s on the horizon for the push for Arizona-like bills for Florida. That’s something that’s going to be on the front-burner. Pests and diseases are constantly a challenge here in Florida, and we’re seeing new pests with alarming regularity and new diseases, so we’ll be making a continued push. It’s been a priority and will continue to be a priority. A new issue, obviously, is the EPA’s numeric nutrient criteria. That’s looming large, and this is coming off last season, with the freezes and the disastrous markets that we had.”

And while these are not tranquil days for the Florida produce industry, “Everybody’s very much looking forward to this next season and putting a very bad season behind them,” said Ms. Lochridge. “Just when you didn’t think things were going to get worse, they did. I think everybody’s pretty happy to close the cover on that chapter and look ahead.”

The annual convention “gives our members a chance to come together and do some valuable networking and we’ve got very timely, relevant topics,” she added. “But in addition to bringing people up to date on the issues and where we’ve been over the last year, we like to point forward and say, 'Here’s what what’s coming on the horizon.’”

Florida growers, shippers and distributors are learning to become more nimble in how they respond to the marketplace, Ms. Lochridge said. Scheduled convention sessions on sales innovation and social media testified to that.

“There are opportunities to be innovative, and [grower-shippers] are looking for ways to use technology to do things more efficiently and more effectively,” in the field and in the marketplace, Ms. Lochridge said. “You have to be able to market -- we’re increasingly becoming a global marketplace. How can producers find new markets and take advantage of them via technology? Even though we’re not anywhere close to where we need to be in consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables in America, consumers are more interested in a healthy diet and with the interest we’ve seen in the locally grown movement, the good news about that is that it gets people thinking about where their food comes from, which is good for agriculture in Florida.”

Chris Trimble, a Dartmouth business professor and best-selling author, was slated to be the featured speaker Sept. 21 at the convention’s annual Cracker Breakfast. U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam [R-FL], the frontrunner to become Florida’s next agriculture commissioner, was scheduled to be the keynote speaker at the annual awards luncheon that same day.

One major topic noticeably absent from the convention agenda was labor, which could be an indication that there are too many unknowns for the industry. Congress has been slow to tackle the issue, the legal status of laws like Arizona SB 1070 is up-in-the-air, the H-2A program has devolved into a bureaucratic tangle that seemingly benefits no one, and any decisions made now could be rendered moot tomorrow by the stroke of a legislative pen.

“I don’t think it is a topic anyone has the stomach to tackle at the moment,” Ms. Lochridge said. “The changes to the H-2A program have made it even more clunky and expensive and tough to use, yet that’s one of the few tools available.”

Meanwhile Florida growers struggling to find workers to tend and harvest crops will simply “do the best they can, the same thing they’ve always done. They find themselves in a real untenable position. The great myth is that these are jobs that Americans would be willing to do and that’s simply not the case.”

Meanwhile, food safety continues to be the overarching focus of the industry and thus the convention. Pending legislation from Washington “could be a game changer” Ms. Lochridge said.

Regardless of what comes from Capitol Hill, Ms. Lochridge said that Florida producers -- led by the tomato industry -- have and will set the standard for the rest of the nation.

“The tomato industry has made food safety its own initiative and has been out in front on this for quite some time, not just the past 12-18 months but the past several years, and that investment and that hard work is paying dividends,” said Ms. Lochridge. “Other regions of the country and other commodities can look to what the tomato industry has done. Florida growers [as a whole] can be proud of what they’ve done -- and they will not rest on their laurels. It’s a process, not a static thing, and everybody knows that and has made this an absolute priority for their operations from the top down.

“When you add staff and bring in new technology and establish a culture of food safety that permeates your operation, that shows how important this is,” she concluded.