“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.