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Florida survives late freeze scare; labor issue is up in the air as spring production ramps up

An early March freeze took a nip out of Florida's sweet corn, green bean and blueberry crops, but otherwise growing conditions have been excellent and the Sunshine State is primed for a fine spring, though there are concerns about labor availability as production ramps up.

Temperatures dipped into the mid-20s March 4 as far south as Belle Glade, FL, located between the eastern edge of Lake Okeechobee and West Palm Beach, FL. While initial damage estimates were grimmer, it now appears that less than 20 percent of the state's sweet corn crop was lost, though yields from the remainder will be downFL-Market-3Mike Stuart of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association at the 2012 state convention. (Photo by Chip Carter). Northern Florida sustained mild-to-moderate damage to blueberries while central Florida was barely dinged. And though Florida green beans took a solid hit, replantings will bring the crop back online by mid-April, though volume will be somewhat diminished.

Labor, however is another issue. Florida production ramps up dramatically in April, but as early as the first week of March growers were already reporting labor shortages. Some strawberry growers were forced to abandon some of their fields because adequate labor could not be found for harvest.

Is that a foreshadowing of what is to come for Florida farmers this spring?

"It depends entirely on who you ask," said Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association in Maitland, FL. "There have been some notable shortages in certain commodities -- strawberries immediately come to mind. It's been tight in other areas and of course we're not to our full spring production season yet, so to me it's a little unsettling at this point in time. Obviously we'll see what April and May bring, but given what we've experienced already this year there's cause for some concern."

As immigration issues as bubbled to the surface over the past three years or so, labor supplies in Florida and the rest of the Southeast have become ever more problematic. Now that the issue is in the national spotlight and being openly discussed in Congress, Mr. Stuart is hopeful resolution is in the offing.

"We have a good political window of opportunity here to address the immigration issue on a national basis, so we really need to take advantage of that and try to create a solution that not only addresses the short-term issues that are out there but long-term [issues] as well," Mr. Stuart said. "If you go back to the 1980s when the last significant, major reform of immigration policy took place it really was a short-term look and we've been suffering from the consequences ever since. We really need to be mindful of that and we need to be looking beyond that two- to five-year horizon. This is not an issue or an area when you look at politics that there's a lot of appetite to jump into on a regular basis, so we need to take advantage of the opportunity. Obviously we've been grappling with this for a long time but there seems to be a glimmer of momentum out there in trying to find something that will resolve this issue and resolve it in a way that agriculture can live with in the future."

Beyond that, Florida has made much progress with issues that have been dogging the industry for years, like water standards and pest and disease pressures.

After a three-year battle, Florida in mid-March was able to negotiate a compromise with the federal Environmental Protection Agency that will put the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in charge of numeric nutrient criteria in state waters. The issue threatened farming's economic viability and could have put small growers out of business, opponents said.

"Just last Friday we got the agreement between EPA and the FDEP here that will allow Florida to move forward in setting its own rules in terms of the numeric nutrient criteria, which is a major step forward in doing the proper thing for water in the state and for those that have to live with those rules," Mr. Stuart said. "That was a positive development certainly. It wasn't just agriculture; municipalities, water treatment facilities, businesses in general that worked together trying to find a solution that would work from Florida and from that standpoint it's certainly a success story."

Florida has also moved forward in forging relationships with other states and regions to share information and ideas that benefit all parties; a rising tide lifts all boats, Mr. Stuart said.

"If there's one thing we've learned over the last several years, it's that no one state, no one commodity, can do this on their own," Mr. Stuart said. "We have forged some very strong working relationships with some of our counterparts not only in the Southeast but throughout the country in an attempt to take on some of the challenges the industry is facing. You can't do it by yourself. We have helped provide some leadership in developing those working relationships and those coalitions [and] that's a role that I think we need to be playing."

Florida faces other challenges -- like the threat of greening disease to the citrus industry, though trial and error have mitigated those to some extent -- and more are looming on the horizon, like the implementation of a national health insurance system in 2014.

"We continue to look at the challenges the industry has faced and sometimes it can depress you a little bit, but at the same time I'm always heartened by the fact that we continue to have new players coming into Florida based elsewhere in the Southeast or in California who increasingly are including Florida as part of their mix from a grower-shipper standpoint," Mr. Stuart said. "That's very encouraging and bodes well for Florida's future. Do we have some challenges on a variety of fronts? There's no question. But when I see some major players in the industry expanding their operations into Florida that tells me that there's a bright future ahead."