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FFVA gearing up for 70th annual convention

As Florida producers and industry affiliates prepare for the 70th annual Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association Convention Sept. 21-25 at the Amelia Island Ritz-Carlton Resort, they find themselves facing an agenda that in many regards is a replica of last year's. The basic issues are the same, and while progress has been made on some fronts, the schedule gives the overall impression of a series of time-lapse photographs that has advanced just a few frames in 12 months' time.

"Unfortunately the issues that we deal with aren't bound by the restrictions of the calendar, so we tend to find ourselves working on these issues in some case for extended periods of time," said FFVA President Mike Stuart.

This year's convention schedule is studded with familiar topics like food safety, healthcare reform, labor and immigration.

Meanwhile, Florida's war against citrus greening disease rages on, and its tilt with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over the right to control its own water monitoring is still not in the rearview mirror.

That does not mean Floridians are pessimistic about the state of the industry - quite the opposite in fact, if convention registration numbers reveal anything. More than 10 days before the start of the convention, registration was already running 20 percent ahead of last year and sponsorships had increased significantly, Stuart said.

Florida tends to be first in front of many of the challenges the domestic produce industry faces. Labor shortages have been a fact of life for several seasons; the EPA has yet to challenge any other state on water monitoring; and citrus greening reared its ugly head in the Sunshine State long before it appeared elsewhere (and in fact, when it did pop up in Texas and California, both those states had the luxury of standing on Florida's research shoulders to prevent the lethal disease from spreading).

Part of that is due to geography, part to happenstance and part to Florida's leadership role in many segments of the industry.

"We have a tendency to stick our chin out from time to time and any time you do that you risk getting whacked, and that happens occasionally," Stuart allowed. "The geography has a lot to do with it, and our production and marketing window has a lot to do with it. Florida is a phenomenal state to produce food in and we do have a unique position in the marketplace. We've got a great industry and a great support mechanism in our university system and elsewhere. But from time to time people want to take you on. We take 'em one at a time."

Like citrus greening, for example. The first infected tree in Florida was found in 2005 and over the last eight years the disease has wreaked havoc throughout Florida groves. It has spread to all citrus-producing counties in the state and has caused millions of dollars in damage, reducing overall annual production by about 20 percent.

But over time, the industry has learned to manage citrus greening to some degree, and in some years it has even battled it to a draw.

"The good news is with [citrus greening] is you've seen government and industry and university systems come together in an unprecedented way to attack a problem, and some of the [potential solutions] you're seeing out there certainly hold some promise," said Stuart. "We've got a ways to go, but some of these things are definitely promising and something to be hopeful about. But I have been enthused and pleased with the amount of attention that we've had at the state and federal level in terms of funding, in terms of regulatory support, legislative support to address what is a major threat to our citrus industries throughout the country. The research itself is encouraging, but the way an issue like this can bring resources from the industry together in a synergistic way, it's a good thing to see."

And while Texas and California have benefited from Florida's struggles with the disease, Stuart noted that door swings both ways.

"They've been able to utilize what we learned to help protect their industries," Stuart said, "We were first, we were learning on the fly; the industries in Texas and California were able to pick up what we learned and apply it and get up and running more quickly because of that. That just happened to be the way it went on that particular issue. When we need help from them, no doubt they will be there."

For example, citrus varieties that were recently developed at Texas A&M University when researchers crossbred fruit trees with two genes from spinach are currently undergoing field trials in south Florida. In the laboratory, these hybrids have proven wholly resistant to citrus greening -- even after 12 months of continuous exposure -- with no change in fruit quality, taste, aroma or appearance.

The Florida field trials are a significant part of the EPA regulatory process, which is evaluating the safety of the new product in a process that could be completed by the end of 2016.

The EPA also figured prominently in another Florida battle, this one over numeric nutrient criteria in water resources. The EPA blamed agriculture for much of the runoff and stepped in with a set of regulations that some said threatened the very viability of the Sunshine State industry.

Florida gathered its resources - including support from other states -- and worked hand-in-hand with the EPA to come up with a solution that, while still having loose ends, will let the state self-regulate its water resources.

"The numeric nutrient criteria issue is an example of what you can achieve when you get agriculture industry state officials and water management officials from around the country together and put together a plan," Stuart said.

The resultant compromise "allows Florida to control its own destiny," he said. "We've landed in a good place. We've still got a couple of issues out there that we need to resolve. But in the grand scheme of things we're in a much better place than we were a year or two ago and look forward to continuing to work on that resolution."

Labor and immigration has become such a hot-button topic that it will have its own workshop at FFVA this year.

"I think we've made more progress on immigration this year certainly than we have in many years," Stuart said. "We had a huge victory in the Senate -- the agreement reached on a bipartisan basis creates a solution for agriculture that we can live and prosper with in the future. The question really comes down to whether or not we can get something comparable done in the House. This issue isn't going away, the issues facing producers not only here in Florida but throughout the country when it comes to workforce are very real and a threat to the ability of our industry to continue to be viable. If I've heard it once I've heard it 100 times: If we can't solve this, the rest of these issues are all moot."

He continued, "I've heard [Secretary of Agriculture] Tom Vilsack say many times, 'The American people have a choice. Their produce is going to be harvested by foreign labor; it can be here in the U.S. or outside the U.S., but it's going to be harvested by foreign labor.' We just don't have the critical mass in the U.S. to get it done. From a national security standpoint, from a food security standpoint, it just makes sense to resolve this thing in a way to make sure we have an adequate labor supply in this country to maintain a vital industry."

Other workshops will deal with food safety, looming changes in the national healthcare picture, and market opportunities that new varieties coming out of the University of Florida Institute of Food & Agriculture Sciences offer.

Speaking at the opening State of the Industry Update luncheon Sept. 23 will be Phil Lempert of Supermarketguru.com. Lempert is a correspondent NBC's Today Show and also makes regular appearances on ABC's The View, The Oprah Winfrey Show, 20/20, CNN, CNBC and FOX.

The convention's other featured speaker is Lt. Col. Robert J. Darling, author of "24 Hours Inside the President's Bunker" and the Pentagon adviser who manned that facility at the White House on Sept. 11, 2001, serving as a liaison between the vice president, the national security adviser and the Pentagon.