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• Mike Sparks and other industry leaders hope Florida’s citrus acreage of about 550,000, down from its high of 850,000, has bottomed out and will trend upward.
ADAM PUTNAM, Florida Commissioner of Agriculture, greets friends at the Florida Citrus Industry annual conference.
Real team effort
“It’s a real team effort, grower led,” he says. “Positive peer pressure on neighbors is extraordinary.”
Exotic diseases like citrus greening will likely be more common in the future, Putnam emphasized, calling for greater efforts to stop them from reaching the U.S.
“With something like the ongoing widening of the Panama Canal, the pressure for pests and diseases is going to be even more intense than it is today. That’s a frightening thing to consider,” he said, calling for tougher federal programs both at U.S. ports and overseas.
“We want to facilitate commerce, but not sacrifice agriculture in the process. We should be taking a national leadership role in getting ahead of the curve with things like a pre-check in originating countries. We’ve got to get ahead on this.”
Florida’s “Don’t Be A Pest” program at airports in Miami and Jamaica, designed to discourage travelers from bringing ag products into the U.S., has been successful and will be expanded to airports and seaports across the U.S., Putnam says.
Many consumers don’t understand the dire threat invasive species pose to Florida agriculture.
“When something like pythons in the Everglades gets in the news, it provides an opportunity for us to paint a broader picture, raise our own profile, and speak to communities that don’t understand what we do, and therefore don’t put much value on agriculture,” Putnam says.
Agricultural labor remains a critical issue for growers on several levels. The domestic workforce is both aging and shrinking in number, says David Stefany, agricultural labor lawyer with Allen, Norton & Blue at Tampa.
Complicating that scenario are efforts at both state and federal levels to implement an E-Verify law requiring employers to certify that workers have legal status. E-Verify, in fact, remains a real possibility, even though it hasn’t been in the news much recently.
“There still is a chance for a mandatory E-Verify program at the federal level — even the Chamber of Commerce supports that,” Stefany says.
Revamping the H-2Atemporary agricultural labor program and moving it to the USDA from the U.S. Department of Labor is far from a sure bet, but it’s a switch most agriculture groups support.
“The current guest worker program is inefficient and too costly. It has oversight by an agency hostile to program users,” Stefany says.
H-2A workers currently harvest about 30 percent of Florida’s citrus, Sparks says.
Stefany likes the potential of the American Specialty Agriculture Act, which would create a new way to deal with temporary guest workers. Administered by the USDA, he says it would, among other things, reduce bureaucratic red tape, allow housing vouchers, make visas available to dairy farmers, eliminate the 50 percent rule on hiring U.S. workers, and allow binding arbitration on contracts.
The Act is imperfect, but could help exasperated ag employers. “It is somewhat compromised legislation,” Stefany says. “We desperately need a legal revision of H-2A to get it out of the Department of Labor’s roller coaster legal interpretation.