The 68th annual convention of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, set for Sept. 18-21 at the Ritz-Carlton in Palm Beach, FL, will get right down to business. Although attendees can expect extra time in this year's schedule for networking and a little relaxation, the convention's opening session -- a state-of-the-industry session with an all-star panel -- will set the tone for the rest of the meeting.
"We have a great convention planned," said Lisa Lochridge, the association's director of public affairs. "We've
got some new things this year that attendees will really benefit from and enjoy and we've got fun mixed in with the work as well. We are going to be kicking off and setting the tone with our state of the industry update, which is going to be a very lively and focused discussion on where things are heading in the coming years. A lot of huge issues are right in front of us: labor, water, which is a perennial issue here in Florida, increased regulation -- that's something that is always a front-burner issue, how we as an industry deal with that, how we work with regulators to improve that picture. Our state-of-the-industry session sets a tone for the convention in dealing with some of these significant issues that are in front of us."
That opening session Sept. 19 will feature a lineup of heavy hitters from the industry. Scheduled panelists are United Fresh Produce Association President Tom Stenzel; Florida Commissioner of Agriculture & Consumer Services Adam Putnam; University of Florida Senior Vice President Jack Payne; and Florida Farm Bureau President John Hoblick. FFVA President Mike Stuart will serve as moderator.
There also will be a series of breakout sessions dealing with the top challenges facing Florida's produce industry.
"We have a very strong lineup of breakout sessions and issue forums that will hone in on the top three: labor, water and food safety," Ms. Lochridge said. "When we sat down to look at what are the biggest issues in front of us, it was a long list. We couldn't deal with everything, so we decided to focus on those three. We've got industry experts in all of those areas we've brought in to give their perspective and there will be time for an interactive component in each of those sessions to pick the brains of the experts in the room."
Political analyst, author, speaker and independent public opinion pollster Scott Rasmussen is scheduled as keynote speaker at the Sept. 20 Cracker Breakfast session. Mr. Rasmussen is the founder of Rasmussen Reports, a media company specializing in the collection, publication and distribution of public opinion polling information, and the author of 2008's Mad As Hell: How the Tea Party Movement Is Fundamentally Remaking Our Two-Party System.
Florida farmers are dealing with labor shortages, water concerns due to new regulations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, foreign competition, and disease pressures in some sectors, specifically citrus.
As an industry, "We've made progress on a lot of issues," Ms. Lochridge said. "There are some that are still in front of us that require a lot of work."
But there are also new opportunities on the horizon, and Ms. Lochridge believes Florida farmers will rally to take advantage of those.
"Florida agriculture has always proven itself to be nimble and to be very innovative and I think, as always, Florida producers are looking at trends to see where there are going to be market opportunities to take advantage of those trends," she said. "The focus on locally produced food has gotten consumers really thinking about where their food comes from. It gives us the opportunity to have conversations with consumers. Here in Florida, we're lucky enough to be able to eat locally produced fruits and vegetables all year round. But Florida producers are growing a vast array of fruits and vegetables for the entire country, especially in the wintertime when you can't get locally grown produce in most regions. It does present an opportunity for us to talk about how Florida contributes to the ability to have those products virtually all year round."
Telling the story of Florida agriculture is paramount to the industry's continued growth and success, Ms. Lochridge said, especially as "we become many more generations removed from the farm. As Florida grows more urbanized, people have no real awareness of Florida's agricultural roots and that agriculture is still one of the top three industries that keep this state thriving. With this economy in the shape it is, it's shown the strength and diversity of Florida's agriculture industry and given us the opportunity to talk about how we contribute and point to the strength that we've been able to maintain throughout this downturn."
The convention will offer ample opportunity to discuss those issues and others. More importantly, Ms. Lochridge said, it gives the state's growers and shippers a chance to band together to solve problems and explore opportunities as a powerful force rather than a collection of individuals.
"We as an industry can get things done when we work as part of larger groups," Ms. Lochridge said. "That's just the way things get done these days. A great example of that is how the Florida citrus industry has tackled greening disease. These growers are competitors but they understand how important it is to be unified when it comes to tackling a problem of this magnitude. Along the same line, you look at what the tomato industry has done when it comes to being a leader in food safety. Years before the rest of the industry they were already heading down the path of following food safety guidelines and pushed to have those guidelines become law. They've really been an example for the rest of the industry."