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NAPLES, FL -- While food safety remained top of mind, Florida growers, shippers and distributors of fresh produce were equally concerned with how to best market their offerings during rocky economic times when they gathered Sept. 18-21 for the 67th annual Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association convention at the Ritz-Carlton Naples, here.

While food safety had a spot on the docket, Florida producers also focused on topics like enhanced selling techniques and using social media to improve business.

"The times they are a-changing. You better keep up," Martha Roberts, special assistant to the director of the University of Florida's Institute of Food & Agricultural Sciences, told attendees at a Sept. 21 session on food safety, which followed a presentation on social media. "The more you stay engaged, the more you're at the table and part of the process, the more influence you have on what happens to you. Watch and respond to any trends that are out there. Follow social media. You've got to be prepared, and you've got to be involved."

At the preceding session on social media, Mark Jewell, founder of the on-line AgJobNetwork, told attendees to create a list of the top challenges facing the produce industry. The top items named were water, labor, over-regulation, reputation/trust, price/costs, imports and food safety. Of those, over- regulation and water concerns topped the polls in a show of hands among the 60 or so attendees.

Mr. Jewell explained that the vote in which the growers had just participated was a form of social media. "Your ideas, coming from a social group of people, verbally communicated to me," he said. "That's really what social media is all about at the bare bones. Take away the computer, take away the 'Crackberry,' take away the iPhone, and we've been doing social media for centuries."

Mr. Jewell continued, "We don't need to replace what we do in person, but we can use social media to better converse, build education, enhance our brands, meet prospects and meet with our existing customer base quickly and easily on-line. Some people are really into it, they're committed, some have grown up with it, some people are all the way on the other end, some are in the middle. But social media are just tools we can use to connect with others and build reputations and exchange information on-line."

The previous day, Eric Shulman of the Sandler Sales Institute in Maitland, FL, led a session on sales innovation.

"Donald Trump is not a real estate developer -- he is a salesperson," Mr. Shulman told the crowd. "None of you ever planned to be in sales when you were a kid. You were 18, 20, 22 or 25 years old, somebody said, 'You're really good with people, you should be in sales.' Here we are 30 years later, but none of us have ever been really formally educated. No one in this room has a degree in sales. You wouldn't go to a doctor or lawyer who didn't keep up with continuing education. But you can get into sales if you can fog a mirror."

Mr. Shulman recommended rethinking the standard approach to sales, most of which has been done the same way for decades. Instead of distributing bids and quotes, Mr. Shulman suggested staying out of that process. "You're giving away free information; you're a consultant who's not getting paid. They take that information and use it to get a better price somewhere else."

Mr. Shulman emphasized the value of "no," meaning that a direct answer is better than hanging on to "maybe-definitely" and wasting time on follow-up calls that are likely to go nowhere.

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

"There is no difference between what is good for the farmer and what is good for the consumer," Rep. Putnam said. "Our most important issue is food safety. And the leader in food safety in the nation is Florida. It is in the farmer's interest that we have a robust, capable technological arm to free up the marketplace to do what it does best. The consumer has a vested interest in that same regulatory regime: smart decisions that rely on good science that allow them to put the best quality, most affordable, most wholesome food products on the table for their family. Florida is the leader in that."

Following Rep. Putnam's keynote address, Florida Sen. Durell Peaden and Florida Rep. Steve Crisafulli were named Legislators of the Year for their contributions to the state's produce industry. Steven Sargent of the University of Florida was named Researcher of the Year, and Save-A-Lot was honored as the association's Merchandiser of the Year.

More than 300 attendees registered for this year's convention, about the same as the 2009 meeting in West Palm Beach, FL, and about 100 more than the turnout in 2008, when the event was last held in Naples.