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Problematic Northern weather hampered Florida product movement

Right now, the talk in Florida is about weather. The state's fresh producers experienced a relatively mild winter, and crops in the Sunshine State are progressing with good growing conditions reported.

But the cloud's silver lining did not come without some cost elsewhere in the nation. "One of the biggest challenges the industry has had is the bad weather in the North," said Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association in Maitland, FL. FFVA-Mike-StuartMike StuartStuart said the unpredictable waves of ice, snow and rain made it difficult to move product in areas like Atlanta. The problems got progressively worse going north, he noted.

The logistics dilemma was something of a one-two punch. Stuart said there were some problems procuring trucks to move product into the Northern states. And trucks that were moving could not always get supplies to customers.

And the situation was just as dicey for consumers, who were hamstrung by weather and unable to get to the grocery store to stock up.

"We're all thankful spring is coming," he commented. "Product has been moving. But not as robustly as we'd like."

With temperatures warming up, Stuart said pent-up consumer demand will be satisfied.

On the legislative front, Stuart said, "We're in a holding pattern as far as immigration reform is concerned. It's ground to a halt in the House. In the meantime, producers face a dramatic amount of uncertainty with their labor force."

Eyeing the need to ensure an adequate number of workers, producers are expressing more interest in the H-2A temporary worker visa program. "It's fraught with problems," he continued. "It's far from ideal. But we need reform. We need it badly."

Stuart is gratified that Florida can now "control its own destiny" when it comes to clean water regulations. Last year, a consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave the Florida Department of Environmental Protection the ability to implement rules for numeric nutrient criteria in state waters. Stuart said this was a major step forward, not just for agriculture but for the state as a whole.

Issues of water quantity are equally important. "Water quantity is very much an unknown," he continued. According to Stuart, Florida has very little storage capacity and must rely on aquifers. "Areas in agricultural production move up and down," he said of the dynamics involved with urban development. As urbanization continues to take hold in the coastal areas, Stuart said agricultural development has moved inland. "Thankfully, we have available land," he stated.

One of the biggest hot-button issues in Florida is Huanglongbing, also known as citrus greening disease. HLB is a bacterial disease that is not harmful to animals or human populations. But, as Stuart commented, it is fatal to citrus trees. HLB is spread by the Asian citrus psyllid.

"That's a dark cloud over an iconic commodity in the state," he said. Left unchecked, Stuart said, HLB will cause a significant decline in citrus production, and the industry's very real future depends upon finding a solution.

Stuart said that, through the leadership and diligent efforts of Florida Citrus Mutual and other private organizations, research dollars were earmarked in the farm bill to find ways to combat HLB.

Florida's agricultural producers continue to provide their input to the Food & Drug Administration regarding the Food Safety Modernization Act. "We have given the FDA significant feedback to make the rules helpful and not put an undue burden on producers," he stated.

Stuart said the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, under the leadership of Commissioner Adam Putnam, has done an outstanding job promoting commodities through "Fresh From Florida." The program significantly ramped up in the past several years. "We're delighted with that," he told The Produce News.