FFVA’s 72nd annual convention was a roaring success, with attendance hitting numbers not seen in many years. Networking opportunities were everywhere, friendships were refreshed and new connections were made. Those opportunities alone were a huge draw. But there was much more.
Those in attendance heard the latest from experts in politics, law, research, international trade, water challenges and other key areas of concern.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam opened the convention with an overview of the state of Florida agriculture. He emphasized that controlling agricultural diseases and pests already is a serious concern and will become even more difficult in the next few years. Florida ports are being improved to take advantage of the massive Panama Canal expansion project, which means “outbreaks could intensify if the massive post-Panamax cargo ships carry pests from Asia when they dock in Florida ports,” he said.
On the positive side, Putnam said that the Fresh From Florida marketing initiative is raising awareness of the state’s agriculture products among shoppers. “This campaign resonates with consumers,” he said.
At FFVA 2015′s first Issues Forum, “Food Crop Industries and GMO: Talking to a Concerned Public,” Dr. Kevin Folta emphasized the importance of “sharing good science” and getting farmers and agricultural researchers to speak out on food-related issues rather than letting non-experts with personal opinions take over the battleground. Folta is professor and chairman of the University of Florida’s Horticulture Sciences Department, and has been in the media spotlight recently. He pointed out that many consumers don’t realize that crops can be genetically engineered to have a higher resistance to disease, reducing the need for spraying. GMO crops also may have improved yields, he said, so an acre of cropland can feed more people without requiring more fertilizer or nutrients. Genetically modified crops can also be safer for consumers than others, he said.
Folta suggested these messages be conveyed whenever the topic of GMOs surfaces:
• GMO is an extension of conventional plant breeding, which has been done throughout history
• There has not been a single case of illness related to GMO products.
• The use of the word “natural” is usually a misnomer, since most of the popular fruits and vegetables grown in the United States originated elsewhere and were transplanted to “unnatural” environments here.
• Foods can be genetically engineered to include nutrients that reduce death and disease in undeveloped regions of the world.
At the annual traditional “Cracker Breakfast,” participants were treated to the insights of Fox News political commentator Tucker Carlson. The co-host of “Fox and Friends Weekend” observed that both Democratic and Republican voters are fed up with establishment candidates. “Things are changing quickly on a demographic level, and the professional predictors are making it up as they go along,” he said.
On the Democratic side, Carlson said that Hillary Clinton not only faces ongoing problems with her email account and an FBI investigation, she has never been popular with the grassroots Democrats. “But most importantly, she doesn’t match where the party is right now,” he said.
Carlson said it’s a mistake to focus solely on the candidates when predicting who will be the next president. “It’s not going to be the individual but the mood of the country when the election takes place. Now we are entering a moment of economic populism,” he said. “Voters want a candidate who is authentic and cares about their issues.”
For the Issues Forum “The Global Market: What’s in It for You?” Dan Sleep, chief of the Bureau of Strategic Development, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, outlined how the promotional bureau has steadily increased the presence of Florida grapefruit, blueberries, wine and other products in the Americas, Asia and Europe. “We are now in 26 countries worldwide and will hit 5,000 stores this year,” he said.
Sleep shared some impressive statistics. Last year, he said, the state had $4.2 billion in agricultural exports, supporting more than 109,000 jobs and generating an economic impact of $13 billion. To help the state’s growers increase export sales, the bureau can provide country reports and other research on target markets. He said Canada is the state’s largest agricultural trading partner by far. “We have grown from 300 to 1,824 stores since 2002,” Sleep said.
At FFVA 2015′s final Issues Forum, “Addressing Critical Water Challenges,” a panel of industry experts discussed key water and land-use policy issues facing the state’s farmers and ranchers. “Measures to protect our water supply will be introduced again in the upcoming legislative session,” said attorney Frank Matthews of Hopping Green & Sams in Tallahassee. Matthews added that the goal is for new House bills to include protection for existing legal users, giving self-suppliers a priority going into the future.
In addition to educational opportunities, convention highlights included recognition of industry members, legislators and others as well as a big send-off for Class 4 of the FFVA Emerging Leader Development Program.
Legislators of the Year were Sen. Kelli Stargel and Rep. Tom Goodson, and Merchandiser of the Year was the Kroger Company. Students Abimael Albiter and Rodrigo Cruz received the George F. Sorn Scholarship, and Redlands Christian Migrant Association Executive Director Barbara Mainster was honored with the Distinguished Service Award for her work with farmworkers children and families
Members of Class 4 of the Emerging Leader Development Program graduating at the Awards Luncheon were: John Alderman, Dan Bott, John Beuttenmuller, Nathan Decker, Matt Griffin, Dustin Grooms, Shine Taylor, Teddy McAvoy, Paul Miller and Meghan Pasken.
The annual Benefit Auction netted $34,598, which will go to RCMA and to the Emerging Leader Development Program.
SEE A VIDEO OF CONVENTION HIGHLIGHTS HERE