FFVA’s annual convention continues to grow, with a 20 percent increase in attendance this year at the event in Amelia Island. Producers and their allied partners heard the latest perspective from industry experts, engaged in meaningful networking and came away with information that will help inform their business decision-making. This year’s convention highlighted the association’s 70th anniversary of serving Florida’s fresh produce industry.
The strong attendance of more than 350 was an indication of the value of FFVA’s convention to the fresh produce industry as well as Amelia Island as a desirable location, said FFVA President Mike Stuart.
For photo highlights of the convention, go here.
Staying one step ahead of consumers
Phil Lempert, the Supermarket Guru, kicked off FFVA 2013 with a look at major consumer trends affecting the fresh produce industry. “Never forget — it’s all about the consumer, and we need to be one step ahead,” Lempert told the crowd. Changes in the retail landscape are putting pressure on agriculture. The only way to know what consumers are thinking, he said, is to get into the supermarket, see what people are buying and find out why.
Key trends that Lempert highlighted include:
— Consumers are more and more interested in healthy choices. The industry should educate shoppers on the health benefits, value and flavor of produce.
— Producers who truly want to get their message out must be more open and transparent today than ever before.
– The local movement is continuing to grow, and growers should tout Florida-grown produce as local. “We’re seeing lots of imports, and people are concerned about where their food comes from,” Lempert told the group.
— Food has become the new universal language. “That’s what people are talking about around the world via social media,” sharing recipes and other food experiences, he said.
— Baby boomers are the largest food influencers and buyers. They control 52 percent of $705 billion spent every year on food.
Consumers will continue to want more information about their food, Lempert said. “The food world is in flux,” he said, adding that 2014 will be about health, food safety, social media, convenience, technology and value. He urged the audience to focus on cultivating relationships and creating contacts in the consumer supply chain that will advocate for Florida’s produce industry.
Ag must persevere on immigration
“The Labor Landscape” Issues Forum focused on the status of immigration reform legislation and featured Chuck Conner of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives and employment attorney Monte Lake.
Conner outlined the formation of the Agriculture Workforce Coalition (of which FFVA is a founding member) as a unified voice of agriculture on comprehensive immigration reform. He recapped the significant work done by the AWC over the past year to ensure that an agriculture program is included in comprehensive immigration legislation. The result was a landmark reform bill passed by the Senate during the summer that includes a program addressing agriculture’s needs.
However, “the lay of the land in the House is much different in making the case for agriculture,” he said. Other issues such as the budget and the debt limit have taken the House’s focus off of immigration reform. The best steps now for agriculture, he said, are to work more closely with the business and faith communities in pushing for action and to focus on a realistic strategy to get a bill to conference with the Senate. Key periods for possible action are early November, December and late January. “The key is to get the House to pass a bill to get to conference,” Conner said. “If we can get a debate in the House and produce a bill, I believe it will be a bill that’s favorable for agriculture.”
Lake echoed Conner’s sentiments. “It’s very easy to get despondent. We’ve been at this for a long time. The politics are very difficult, as we all know,” he said. “We have no choice but to be vigilant and keep pressure up on members of Congress.”
Lake spelled out key differences between the Senate bill and the measure that has passed the House Judiciary Committee and is waiting to get to the floor. The House bill is not as open to dealing with undocumented workers and giving them legal status as the Senate measure, Lake said. If immigration reform fails, Lake predicted that pressure from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Department of Labor will continue at record levels. He ended with words of encouragement: “Keep the energy up. Keep working your members of Congress,” he said. “Your voice is very, very important in keeping the pressure on. We have no alternative.”
Health care reform ‘marches on’
In “Health Care Reform: Planning for 2014,” labor attorney Sheldon Blumling gave an extensive overview of changes coming soon for employers.
Health care reform is a moving target, he told the group. Employers were planning for the start of the so-called “play-or-pay” mandate when the Obama administration announced in July it would be delayed until 2015. “I remember that day,” he said. “It was a shock.” A lot of employers put health care reform out of their minds at that point. But there are still portions that remain in effect, he said, and a lot of planning must be done for the play-or-pay mandate.
Meanwhile, “the rest of health care reform marches on,” Blumling said. Provisions and obligations that remain include the individual mandate to secure coverage, coverage by exchanges, and requirements such as elimination of pre-existing condition limitations and 90-day waiting periods. The No. 1 policy goal behind reform is to get everyone covered, he reminded the group.
There are no “magic solutions” or blanket exceptions for agriculture employers — or any other industry, he cautioned. Blumling outlined the details of the mandate, which applies to employers with 50 or more employees who work 30 or more hours per week. His presentation is posted on FFVA’s website. Click here to view.
FDA urges comments on food safety rules
Representatives from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture fielded questions about produce and the Food Safety Modernization Act during another Issues Forum. Samir Assar and Mike Mahovic of FDA and Leanne Skelton of USDA joined moderator Dr. Martha Roberts to talk about regulations being developed by FDA to implement the law.
The mandate of FSMA is to create national standards, focus on prevention, address recognized pathways and apply standards to imports, Assar told the group. The agency is trying to deal with the diversity of different commodities and geographic regions, he added.
Assar acknowledged that industry has pushed back on the proposed water standard: “We’ve heard loud and clear from some segments that this standard is not indicative of pathogen load,” he said. Calling the proposed rules “the good, the bad and the ugly,” Dr. Roberts questioned the proposed frequency for water testing. “There are 40 pages of verbage [dealing with water]. There’s not a ditch or canal or water body in the state that doesn’t have runoff,” she said. “Every seven days to test surface water has a lot of people concerned.”
All three panelists stressed the need for growers to submit comments on how the proposed rules would affect them. “We need to hear about what we got right and what we got wrong,” Assar said. “Give specific examples give as much details and evidence as possible. The more robust the comments, the more we can use in formulating the rule.”
Survival is in plant breeding
Developing new varieties of crops from seed to the marketplace was the focus of the “New Varieties, New Markets,” Issues Forum. David Day of the University of Florida’s Office of Technology Licensing led off, explaining the office’s role in the commercialization of new varieties. John Beuttenmuller of Florida Foundation Seed Producers discussed how new cultivars make their way through UF’s Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences, including the new Fast Track program that allows new citrus cultivars to be released quickly.
Ted Campbell of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association explained that through that group’s breeding program, the strawberry industry has cut the time from breeding to marketplace from 10 years to five. Peter Chairs of New Varieties Development Corp. detailed Fast Track, which includes incentives for growers to participate in trials and generate revenue for the breeding program. For the tomato industry, “Improving our product has relied on a good breeding program,” said Reggie Brown of the Florida Tomato Committee. “We’ve invested in breeders and the program at UF. We’re convinced that the survivability of our commodity is based in plant genetics and plant breeding.”
Industry leaders honored at Awards Luncheon
The annual Awards Luncheon kicked off with the FFVA Emerging Leader Development Program Class 2 graduation. In addition, the members of the new Class 3 were introduced.
The annual Syngenta scholarship was presented to Christian Mignano, University of Florida College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, who is studying agricultural operations management. There were two recipients of the George F. Sorn Scholarship: Flor Rodriguez and Ashley Vernet, whose parents are all dedicated farm workers. Flor attends the University of South Florida in preparation for a nursing career and Ashley, who also wants to become a nurse, is a student at the University of Florida.
Butch Calhoun, FFVA’s director of government relations, announced Sen. Wilton Simpson and Rep. Matt Caldwell as this year’s Legislators of the Year.
This year’s Researcher of the Year award was presented to Dr. Michael Rogers, associate professor of entomology at the Citrus Research and Education Center, and Jim Shine, vice president of agriculture operations at the Florida Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative. Rogers is a top researcher in the fight against citrus greening, and Shine’s efforts have brought to Florida ag significant levels of funding for various research projects.
The 2013 FFVA Merchandiser of the went to Ahold USA, a valued partner that has worked with producers to promote Florida products. Ahold’s four divisions operate about 770 supermarkets in 13 states and the District of Columbia, along with Peapod, an online grocery shopping and delivery service.
Also recognized were FFVA members who are celebrating significant anniversaries. Those were: Bedner Growers of Boynton Beach and Smoak Groves of Lake Placid, celebrating 25 years; Riverfront Packing of Vero Beach, 30 years; and Wilson Family Farm of St. Augustine, 40 years.
Auction benefits programs important to Florida agriculture
The 15th annual Benefit Auction sponsored by the Florida Specialty Crop Foundation at the convention raised $17,340 for the foundation. Items donated to the auction included a wildlife print signed by the Florida Cabinet, fishing trips, University of Florida football tickets, a Duck Dynasty basket, Coach purses, a Taylormade R1 driver, NASCAR tickets and a custom-made album of FFVA vintage photos.