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PALM BEACH, FL -- The Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association left no stone unturned at its 68th annual convention, held at the Ritz Carlton here Sept. 18-21, tackling tough issues like labor and immigration, water and other natural resources, government regulation and pestilence with a power-packed series of panels and workshops featuring some of the industry's bigger hitters.

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Adam Putnam, commissioner of the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, participated in a panel discussion during the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association's 68th annual convention. (Photo by Chip Carter)

"There was a lot of power up there," FFVA Director of Public Affairs Lisa Lochridge said following an afternoon that featured Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association President; Adam Putnam, Florida commissioner of the Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services; Jack Payne, senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources at the University of Florida; Tony DiMare, a tomato grower and former FFVA chairman; and John Hoblick of the Florida Farm Bureau Federation on one panel, and U.S. Department of Agriculture Senior Advisor for Produce Safety Jim Gorny and Martha Roberts, special assistant to the dean of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences on another.

About 300 people attended this year's convention - about the same number as last year - but Ms. Lochridge said that attendance at the 2011 panel presentations and workshops was well above average.

At the annual awards luncheon, FFVA recognized Aldi USA Inc. in Batavia, IL, as its Merchandiser of the Year. Mr. DiMare, vice president of the DiMare Co. in Homestead, FL, received the association's Distinguished Service Award. Legislators of the Year were Sen. Anitere Flores of Miami and Rep. Seth McKeel of Lakeland, FL. Fred Gmitter of IFAS was named Researcher of the Year.

Aldi, with more than 1,000 stores nationwide, was honored for adopting a push for produce from Florida in its 58 stores in the state.

"The Aldi team understands the importance of merchandising Florida produce," said Adam Lytch, operations manager for Raleigh, NC-based L&M Cos. Inc., who nominated the chain. "For a chain of its size, it markets a lot of Florida products."

Mr. DiMare has been an FFVA officer since 1990, and spent countless hours working for the industry with lawmakers in Tallahassee, FL, and Washington, DC.

"Tony DiMare epitomizes the kind of industry-focused leadership that truly makes a difference for specialty crop agriculture," said Drew Duda, FFVA chairman and senior vice president of Oviedo, FL-based A. Duda & Sons Inc.'s Duda Ranches.

After the ceremony, a visibly moved Mr. DiMare said that the award caught him completely off guard. Noted a nearby Mr. Duda, "It was really hard keeping it from you, especially the last couple of days since everyone got here [to the convention]."

With the industry already focused on food safety, labor - and in particular a workforce that is directly tied to immigration -- seems poised to emerge as the next major issue.

"The emotion of the citizenry at large is not on our side right now: There's fear, there's paranoia, there's racism, there's class issues, there's NIMBY ["Not In My Back Yard"], you see it across the country and we are losing this battle," Mr. Stenzel said. "We're talking about having a viable workforce and we need to harvest the crops. We've missed some of the emotion. We need to personalize this a little bit, talk about the fact that this is honorable work, listen to laborers talking about their dreams. Yes, maybe they came in the country illegally, but they are working for the good of their families. We need to find a way - not amnesty - to make this work, maybe have them pay a fine and move into some type of legal guest worker program."

Mr. Hoblick put some of the industry's challenges into focus. "There are a lot of challenges. When you look industry wide across the state, we've got a growing population that continues to put demands on our natural and water resources. There are three fundamental things you need to survive: food, water and fuel. The cost of fuel has driven a lot of this economy to where it is. Yes we've had the economic systems and banking fail us and interest that's unbelievably low; but the cost of all these goods and cost of production continue to rise, and a growing population puts demands on our finite industry. That industry is one of the backbones of this state and where this balance lies in the future is going to be a challenge for us."

Dr. Gorny faced the music from a room full of disgruntled growers, fielding questions about the future of food-safety legislation and regulation.

"I can understand your consternation and worry," Dr. Gorny said. "We certainly know we don't have all the answers with regard to some of the practices that are out there. We need more regulators and we're forced to take a 'safe harbor' approach, which we understand is not the most popular way to do things, we're taking a very conservative approach to practices, implementation and compliance."

He said that growers can expect to see new food regulations published by USDA sometime between January and March, but that the industry will still have time to learn to comply. After a comment period has passed and the new rules become law, small farms will have three years to comply, medium-sized operations will have two, all others will have one.

"This is not going to happen overnight. We will need to educate before we regulate," Dr. Gorny said. "Typically that first year we will do education and compliance. If there's something that's egregious or a risk to public health, we're forced to take action. But we really want to try and get people up to speed in terms of compliance. We need to take a nontraditional approach, use existing partnerships in government so bodies on the farms utilize those and explore ways to leverage resources that are already on your farm and in other government entities and that includes state and federal regulators -- you can imagine many of our regulators have never been on a farm."

Despite the many challenges facing the industry, "There is a lot to smile about, believe it or not," Mr. Putnam said. "McDonald's is putting apple packets in their Happy Meals, Disney has come to us and said, 'We want to source all our restaurants with Florida food where possible,' LegoLand is talking about how we can partner to show kids where food comes from, where it's grown, how it's grown. Clearly the macro trend of locally grown, closer-to-home, know your food, know where it comes from -- a lot of that benefits what we grow in Florida and fruit and vegetable producers in particular are well-positioned to benefit from these trends. Generally speaking the story for ag globally is a positive one and the story for fruit and vegetables is even better."

Mr. Stenzel wrapped up the proceedings on a positive note. "I will come down as an optimist," he said. "I think we will find a way to come up with solutions, we always have. The thing I see benefiting the fruit and vegetable sector is almost their permeation of society; a few years ago you could buy fruit and vegetables in supermarkets. Now they are available at gas stations, Target, convenience stores. My first job was at the National Soft Drink Association. The inventor of Coca-Cola said his intention was to bring a Coca-Cola within arm's length of anybody at thirst. I'd like to make sure there are fresh fruit or vegetables at arm's reach."