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.