Produce outlook good, bad
TBO – October 12, 2011
PALM BEACH – In 1859, Charles Dickens began his “A Tale of Two Cities” with the conundrum, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” leaving generations of readers to ponder, “How can it be both?” To understand that paradox, one need only look as close as Florida’s agriculture industry, and in particular its produce segment.
Florida produce providers are responsible for bringing you citrus, strawberries, tomatoes and fresh vegetables. Citrus alone is a $9 billion industry that employs 76,000 Floridians. Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Adam Putnam compares the state economy to a three-legged stool comprised of construction, tourism and agriculture. For the past few years, only one of those legs has been holding up its share of the weight —and then some.
Commodity prices are high, advancements in technology continue to increase yields and production, and TIME magazine recently reported that a career in agriculture is more likely to lead to riches than a career in banking. So in that regard, it is an excellent time to be a Florida farmer.
On the other hand, there is a seemingly endless parade of problems and challenges facing the industry:
New and persistent pests and diseases lurk around every corner.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has imposed new standards that Florida farmers say are unattainable.
Labor and immigration issues are a growing problem; some Florida crops rotted in the field this spring due to a shortage of workers.
And an ever-increasing tangle of government regulations has growers dealing with as many as 48 different state and federal agencies to simply turn ground and plant a crop, much less harvest and sell it.
To try to cut through the Gordian knot of challenges facing the industry, the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association assembled a “super-panel” to tackle those topics at its annual convention Sept. 18-21 in Palm Beach.
Joining the fray were Putnam; University of Florida Senior Vice President for Agriculture and Natural Resources Jack Payne; Florida Farm Bureau Federation President John Hoblick; Florida tomato grower and former FFVA chairman Tony DiMare of DiMare Fresh in Homestead; and Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association, a national trade group that represents the industry in marketing and legislative matters.
FFVA President Mike Stuart moderated the panel discussion and set the tone for the 90-minute session — attended by some 200 growers and other industry types — right off the bat.
“The challenges are easy to identify. It’s the solutions that are a problem,” Stuart said, asking the panelists, “What keeps you up at night?”
With the industry already well-focused on food safety, labor (and in particular a workforce that is directly tied to immigration) seems poised to emerge as the next major issue.
“The emotion of the citizenry at large is not on our side right now: There’s fear, there’s paranoia, there’s racism, there’s class issues, there’s NIMBY (“Not In My Back Yard”). You see it across the country and we are losing this battle,” Stenzel said.
“We’re talking about having a viable workforce and we need to harvest the crops. We’ve missed some of the emotion; we need to personalize this a little bit, talk about the fact that this is honorable work, listen to laborers talking about their dreams.
“Yes, maybe they came in the country illegally, but they are working for the good of their families. We need to find a way — not amnesty — to make this work, maybe have them pay a fine and move into some type of legal guest worker program.”
DiMare agreed. “One of the most pressing concerns right now is labor and E-verify, which is hanging over all our heads,” he said.
“We’ve got a broken H-2A (guest-worker visa) system that’s becoming more expensive, more litigious,” he said. “The challenges we face with ever-increasing pests and diseases, the loss of resources and crop protection tools, all these are not only challenges but come at an expensive cost.
“Our margins are continually shrinking, such that there is a question in my eyes whether we have a future as a tomato industry. I’d like to think there are some opportunities, but whether they’re viable or not, I’m not sure.”
Countered Payne: “There’s a future in Florida and I think there’s going to be an ag renaissance, but there are these huge roadblocks in the way. Before the revolution in Egypt, wheat prices were at a record high. People were angry and hungry.
“We have to grow more food the next 50 years than we have in the last 1,500 to feed the increase in population. What’s happened in the Middle East is going to be a microcosm for the whole world unless we wise up.
“I think about who’s going to own the farms and do the farming — places I’ve been, farmers are getting older everywhere. Cost makes getting into the business very difficult for young people today, unless they’re heirs.
“But my biggest concern is the continuing decline in public-funded research that we’re experiencing across the U.S. with state legislatures and Congress. We need good science to be able to solve problems and be innovative so we can stay competitive.”
Hoblick brought some industry problems into focus. “There are a lot of challenges. When you look industry wide across the state, we’ve got a growing population that continues to put demands on our natural and water resources.
“There are three fundamental things you need to survive: food, water and fuel. The cost of fuel has driven a lot of this economy to where it is.
“Yes, we’ve had the economic systems and banking fail us, but the cost of all these goods and cost of production continues to rise and a growing population puts demands on our finite industry. “That industry is one of the backbones of this state, and where this balance lies in the future is going to be a challenge for us.”
Despite the many obstacles facing the industry, “there is a lot to smile about, believe it or not,” Putnam said. “McDonald’s is putting apple packets in their happy meals, Disney has come to us and said, ‘We want to source all our restaurants with Florida food where possible,’ LegoLand is talking about how we can partner to show kids where food comes from, where it’s grown, how it’s grown.
“Clearly the macro-trend of locally grown, closer-to-home, know your food, know where it comes from — a lot of that benefits what we grow in Florida and fruit and vegetable producers in particular are well-positioned to benefit from these trends.
“Generally speaking, the story for ag globally is a positive one and the story for fruit and vegetables is even better.”
Stenzel wrapped up the proceedings on a positive note. “I will come down as an optimist. I think we will find a way to come up with solutions; we always have.
“The thing I see benefitting the fruit and vegetable sector is their permeation of society. A few years ago you could only buy fruit and vegetables in supermarkets. Now they are available at gas stations, Target, convenience stores. My first job was at the National Soft Drink Association. The inventor of Coca-Cola said his intention was to bring a Coca-Cola within arm’s length of anybody at thirst. I’d like to make sure there are fresh fruits or vegetables at arm’s reach for anybody who’s hungry.”