More than 300 attendees gathered for FFVA’s 69th Annual Convention in Naples to network with their colleagues, get the latest information on key issues and hear the perspectives of industry experts on a variety of topics.
From the opening luncheon and State of the Industry update to the final closing party and graduation of FFVA’s Emerging Leaders, participants left feeling informed and energized.
“We heard from many that this convention was one of the best yet,” said Mike Stuart, FFVA president. “Our goal is to exceed expectations and make this event more than worth the time that everyone spends away from their companies.”
Keynote speaker James Olson, a career spy for the CIA for 31 years, kept the crowd on the edge of their seats during the Cracker Breakfast. Olson discussed the importance of America’s intelligence programs overseas and recounted a secret mission to meet and establish a relationship with a KGB operative in Moscow to gain access to Soviet code.
Putnam names challenges, issues
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam opened the convention by highlighting key issues for the industry, including trade and child nutrition.
Putnam touched on the U.S. tomato industry’s efforts to stop what it calls Mexico’s dumping of tomatoes into this country at rock-bottom prices. “We as an industry continue to find ourselves in a defensive crouch. We’re dealing with the consequences of what happens when you do trade deals wrong. When we get those trade deals, we have to implement them in a fair way,” he said.
He touted his department’s new Farm to School program, which seeks to increase children’s consumption of fresh produce by linking Florida growers with buyers for school meal programs. The program started in earnest this fall, but there’s work to be done, he said.
“We’re not doing an end-zone dance yet, but we’re well on track with a program that is a national model for modern state departments of agriculture,” Putnam said. “I feel very good about where this is headed and what it means for our growers, our kids and the taxpayers of the state of Florida,” he added.
Speak up for a viable workforce
During the Issues Forum on labor, Craig Reggelbrugge, vice president of government relations with the American Nursery & Landscape Association, urged attendees to engage on the issue of a workforce solution for agriculture. “You can make a difference,” he said. He advised the group to leverage every opportunity and every conversation to educate elected leaders on the issue.
“You’ve got to talk about this issue. You’ve got to tell them what’s going on,” he said. It’s important for agricultural employers to connect the dots between what they do and how they create jobs to support economic growth, Reggelbrugge said. He also discussed possibilities for progress on the issue after the upcoming presidential election and outlined what representatives from the industry have been doing to prepare for those possibilities.
Reggelbrugge outlined key elements of a workforce solution for the industry. It must be a market-based, “21st century program” for agricultural workers only. The visa issued under such a program should be longer than what is typical now and would include portability so workers could move among employment opportunities. It should still involve a contract, he said.
Congress can’t solve the problem without dealing with the current workforce, Reggelbrugge added. “There’s no other way to come up with a solution logistically. We know that these workers are on a continuum … we have to find a way to create opportunities that recognize that continuum.”
International trade poses challenges, opportunities
In the Issues Forum “The Worldwide Economics of Produce,” two agriculture economists focused on consumer and economic trends and issues that affect the produce industry. Dr. Marco Palma of Texas A&M University discussed some consumer trends that affect farming. Dr. John VanSickle of the University of Florida presented economic factors that are putting pressure on the industry.
It’s important to first look at consumer demand and then apply it to what happens on the farm, Palma said.
Consumption of fruit and vegetables peaked around the year 2000 and then began to fall. That corresponds with the growth of imported fresh fruits and vegetables, primarily from Central and South America, Mexico and Canada.
Still, Palma said, the value of horticulture is increasing because of a growing population. New international markets are opening up, and consumers have become accustomed to year-round availability of fresh fruits and vegetables. They also are willing to try new products.
Palma hailed the 2010 U.S. dietary guidelines, which call for consumers to fill half their plates with fruits and vegetables. The guidelines, which also call for an increase in certain types of produce, could change the way people look at some of the food groups.
For his part, VanSickle posed the question: “Why are we still at risk?” The country is still recovering from the recession and is still being affected by the European debt crisis. The U.S. budget crisis still looms, with lawmakers locked in partisan battles, he said.
Additionally, imports are impacting growers, and it’s getting more difficult for producers to recover their costs. Agriculture is in a “very, very precarious position,” he warned. VanSickle also pointed to the strength of the U.S. dollar, which has given rise to increased imports. Producers’ costs are increasing, market shares are shrinking despite the obesity crisis, and margins continue to be squeezed. Farming is a riskier venture that it once was, he concluded.
VanSickle suggested that the fresh produce industry needs a new business model to inspire consumers to want more produce. Import relief is part of the equation, he said, outlining some options that are available to industry. But so is re-evaluating the business model for agriculture. Growth in greenhouse production is turning fresh produce into more of a commodity business, he said, and margin management becomes critical.
“I believe there is a revival,” he said. “We’re going to work hard to find it. Those who work hard to be innovative and accept change will be the survivors.”
“This election is so important.”
Three panelists provided analysis of the upcoming fall elections and what the results could mean during the Issues Forum “Election 2012: What’s Ahead for Agriculture?”
Marian Johnson, senior vice president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, called this “one of the most unusual election years I’ve been involved in since 1964.” Although 22 seats were open because of term limits, a total of 50 were up for grabs because candidates were running for other spots as a result of redistricting. The demographics of Florida voters have shifted significantly, she said. Roughly 2.4 million voters have no party affiliation. “Those people are one of the fastest-growing segments,” she said. “Sixty percent of those are under the age of 50. They will be the deciding factor in this general election.”
Johnson explained the importance of two key ballot amendments. No. 4 would reduce the maximum annual increase in assessed value on certain non-homesteaded properties. No. 10 would, among other things, provide an exemption from tangible personal property tax if the owner’s tangible personal property is greater than $25,000 but less than $50,000.
Finally, she urged people to go to the polls. “This is a big ballot,” she said. “This election is so important. Please study the amendments so you know when you go in how you’re going to vote.”
State Rep. Joe Abruzzo of Palm Beach County highlighted important state races. A key battle is for the newly drawn Senate District 34 (Palm Beach and Broward counties), which pits Republican Ellyn Bogdanoff against Democrat Maria Sachs. “There’s a tremendous amount of money that will be poured into this race,” he said, adding that with an almost nine-point Democratic edge in the district he anticipates a strong campaign.
Abruzzo, a Democrat, faces Republican Melanie Peterson in the new open Senate District 25 seat. Despite a 12.5-point voter registration advantage for the Democrats, Abruzzo said, “I will not take anything for granted. You can get a lot done in the legislative process through respect and relationships. Both parties have the same agenda: for the economy and jobs to be strong, for health care and safe communities. We just have different ways we want to get there.”
State Rep. Ben Albritton (District 66) encouraged growers to be involved in the legislative process. “Sometimes in ag we talk about our threats as water, pests or disease, or labor. But the greatest threat to our future is us being apathetic,” he said. He urged the group to reach out to candidates, be involved in campaigns, and most of all, to vote.
FFVA honors deserving legislators, researcher, merchandiser, more
During the convention, FFVA handed out numerous honors. Legislator of the Year awards went to Florida Sen. Alan Hays (R-Umatilla) and Rep. Ben Albritton (R-Wauchula). Hays sponsored most of the agriculture legislation in the Senate during the 2012 session and served as chairman of the Senate Budget Subcommittee on General Government Appropriations. Albritton, a freshman legislator and citrus grower, was agriculture’s “go-to person” in the House, said FFVA Government Relations Director Butch Calhoun.
Loblaw Companies was tapped as Merchandiser of the Year. FFVA applauded the Canadian company for championing direct farm sourcing by working directly with growers, employing local representatives to facilitate direct farm supply lines and featuring Florida products throughout Canada.
Mike Irey, director of research for sugarcane and citrus for U.S. Sugar Corp. and Southern Gardens Citrus, was presented with the Researcher of the Year Award. In their nomination, Ken McDuffie, senior vice president of U.S. Sugar, and Rick Kress, president of Southern Gardens Citrus, said, “Mike Irey plays a critical role for U.S. Sugar in not only research efforts, but also applying the results of that research.”
Emerging leaders benefit from auction
The 14th annual Benefit Auction sponsored by the Florida Specialty Crop Foundation raised $17,335 for FFVA’s Emerging Leader Development Program.
The leadership program, which is starting its second class, is designed to equip up-and-coming leaders with knowledge of the issues facing agriculture and to help them become strong, effective advocates for the specialty crop industry.
The 91 items donated ranged from a train ride through South Florida’s sugarcane fields to sky diving to a select few paintings by a young autistic artist.
“I especially want to thank both the donors to the auction as well as the lively bidders who helped us raise over $17,000 to benefit our Emerging Leader Development Program,” said foundation Executive Director Sonia Tighe, who also oversees the leadership program. “We have 11 excellent participants in Class 2, and we will use the money raised from the auction to cover travel and other operational costs. We sincerely appreciate the support that has been shown for this auction and our beneficiaries.”
The inaugural class of FFVA’s Emerging Leader Development Program graduated on the final evening of the convention. Completing the yearlong program were Rob Atchley of A. Duda and Sons, Andy Ballard of Hundley Farms, Heather Banky of U.S. Sugar Corp., Michael Hill of Lakeshore Growers Inc., Jennifer Hodges of The Andersons Inc., Elizabeth Malek of Glades Crop Care Inc., Justin Roberson of Lipman Produce, April Roe Porter of Wm. G. Roe & Sons Inc., Adam Trott of Rabo AgriFinance, and Rachel Walters of Bayer CropScience.
Class 2 was introduced to FFVA membership and had its first meeting at the convention as well. Members are Jonathan Allen of R.C. Hatton Inc., Nicholas Basore of TKM Bengard Farms, Ian Bessell of ABC Research Laboratories, Lee Ann Hinton Coleman of Hinton Farms Produce, Thomas Dalton of Farm Credit of Central Florida, Carleton Johns of Tater Farms, Jessica Kerstein of Lipman Produce, Amber Kosinsky of Wish Farms, Tom Mitchell of Riverfront Packing Co., Derek Orsenigo of Grower’s Management Inc., and Joby Sherrod of A. Duda & Sons.
Be sure and join us next year when FFVA 2013 will be held at the Ritz Carlton, Amelia Island, Sept. 22-24.