Florida agriculture faces challenges galore — and one speaker after another cited those challenges at the recent Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association’s 69th annual convention in Naples.

Challenge, in fact, was undoubtedly their most frequent description for the industry’s future.

A challenge can, of course, lead either to failure or opportunity, and opportunity was probably the second-most-used word at the meeting.

Many of the 300-plus registrants were eager to hear about those opportunities, knowing that their businesses first must survive long enough to put them into play.

“What I talk about is survival until revival,” says John VanSickle, University of Florida food and resource economics professor of risk management and agricultural policy.

“I think there is light at the end of the tunnel, but we’re going to have to work hard to find it. People who are innovative are going to be the survivors. We can’t operate in a world that no longer exists. It’s not like your dad’s world — you need to operate to fit the new environment we’ve got today.”

The continuing recession combined with federal budget woes, a strengthening dollar, and the European debt crisis are the industry’s immediate concerns, he says. An economic-based retail decline means less overall spending for food, a big negative for fruits and vegetables.

“In the 2000s, we’ve seen nothing but decline for fruit and vegetable consumption,” VanSickle says. “That’s absolutely unbelievable coming at a time when our country has a lot of concerns about health and obesity rates.

“Fruits and vegetables are getting more expensive relative to other food items. Is it any wonder we’ve seen a decline in consumption?”

Plus, a bigger percentage of the produce consumed in the U.S. is now imported, he notes.

Competition from Mexico

“We’re seeing the impact of Mexican greenhouse production on our producers across the U.S., claiming market share. That makes it difficult for our producers to recover the cost it takes to grow a crop in the U.S.,” VanSickle says.

About 20 percent of the vegetables eaten in the U.S. are now imported, Marco Palma, Texas Extension agricultural economist, told the group, along with 30 percent of the fruit, excluding bananas.

“After NAFTA, imports have been growing more rapidly than exports,” Palma says.

In addition to concerns about markets and the economy, growers face much uncertainty over other continuing issues ranging from immigration and labor availability to water quality and nutrient standards.

Ben Albritton, a Wauchula, Fla., citrus grower serving in the state house of representatives since 2010, urged his fellow producers to protect their interests by becoming more active in the political process.

“Every single day we miss opportunitiesto be involved in the process,” Albritton says. “Sometimes in ag we talk about the greatest threats to our future existence. It really isn’t water, pests or disease — the greatest threat to our future is us being apathetic.”

He thinks growers should make sure the state’s elected officials fully understand that agriculture remains a top economic driver in Florida, equal in scale to the state’s tourism industry.

“Florida agriculture needs to stand up and be counted like never before,” he says.” That’s how we’ll make all the difference in how these water battles are fought, in how the regulatory issues come down, in how the labor issues get managed in our world.

“It’s time for Florida agriculture to be recognized for the scale of good things we bring to this state. What’s going to happen is that these attacks on water, labor, and nutrient standards are going to come faster and harder.

“There’s a disconnect between farming and the urban community. We have to figure out how to get that connection back.”

Adam Putnam, Florida agriculture commissioner, recognizes the litany of problems facing the industry, but also thinks the local food movement, most notably Florida’s new Farm to School program that partners farmers with schools, could provide a boost.

“The things we can do from an education and wellness standpoint are limitless,” he says.

“The thing is, this is a new program, and we’ve not done all those things yet. We’re trying to get this done right. So far, the things we hoped to accomplish, we are on track to accomplish. Now we can connect Florida kids with Florida growers.”

Eight Florida companies got contracts in the first round of bidding. The second round soon begins, Putnam says.

Huge opportunity

“We’re moving product within three days of harvest, at a market rate better than growers could get, and it’s a better deal for school districts, too,” Putnam says. “In my opinion, this is a huge opportunity for the industry, the state, and the health and well-being of our kids.”

Florida fruit and vegetable producers could also benefit from national health concerns, Palma says. He cites an International Food Information Council survey finding that 59 percent of U.S. consumers say they are attempting to improve their health, many by eating more nutritious food.

“If consumers changed their diets and started eating better, what would be the implications for the ag sector?” Palma asks, noting that if current trends continue, much of that increase would be imported.

“California, Texas and Florida are the main growing regions for fruits and vegetables in the U.S. How well will they be positioned to answer the challenge?”

Many economically solvent Florida farms and ranches are reasonably well-positioned to weather difficulties and even to take on some risk, says Regina Thomas, senior vice president and chief business development officer of Farm Credit of Central Florida.

“With all the challenges, there are more opportunities than ever — there is a bright future for Florida agriculture,” she says. “Our farmers have been faced with adversity before — this is nothing new. The big part of it is management ability. Are they using best management practices? Do they have financial strength to handle adversity?”

Established citrus growers could find this to be a good time for moderate expansion, replanting or rehabilitating groves, she says.

“With the decrease in development prices, citrus is economically a favorable investment again. Is that land ever going to get back to the highest price level of several years ago? Probably not, even though Florida remains an appealing place for many people. So, it’s a matter of investing strategically.”

Thomas still considers Florida agriculture a good loan risk.

“We are open to expansion. We do look at farm history and production. With some, it gets to be an economy of scale issue, but I think it’s a good time for expansion for established producers in citrus, blueberries and strawberries.”