MANALAPAN, Fla. —  Growers tackled immigration reform, increasing production costs and food safety at the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association’s Sept. 19-21 convention at the Palm Beach Ritz-Carlton.

FFVA members focus on E-Verify at meetingThe challenges of growers legally securing workers came during a spirited Sept. 20 discussion between both sides of the issue, which featured Monte Lake, a Washington-based agriculture lobbyist and attorney with CJ Lake LLC, and Rob Williams, director of Florida Legal Services’ Migrant Farmworker Justice Project.

“As an industry, we have been at this (issue) for a long time,” Lake said. “This problem is serious and it won’t get better. The political environment is just too poisonous to do anything but enforcement, and E-Verify embodies enforcement.”

Lake spoke a day before a congressional committee was scheduled to move a E-Verify bill to the floor of the House of Representatives.

“The issue has caught up with us,” he said. “We are on the advent of potential mandatory E-Verify rules. Congress is incapable of getting ahead of difficult topics like immigration and apparently needed a train wreck to justify coming up with a solution to a difficult solution. That’s what we have concluded because they have not really paid attention to us and mustered the political will to solve the problem.”

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam received a big round of applause when he pinpointed the problem of over-regulation.

“More than anything else, we have to have a sea change in regulatory approaches that are our No. 1 threat now,” he said. “More than any pest or disease, it’s our own government.”

During FFVA’s Sept. 20 traditional Southern cracker breakfast, political analyst, author and pollster Scott Rasmussen discussed polling and how the landscape of Washington,, D.C., may change.

“None of us knows what the nation will be really like in November 2012,” he said. “Things can change. Republicans have a good chance of picking up control of the Senate. The issue for this election is going to be the economy.”

Jim Gorny, senior adviser for produce safety at the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, discussed how the FDA plans to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act. 

“What we’re trying to do is match up these rules so they form a seamless web so we don’t have people falling through the cracks and don’t become double-regulated under different rules,” he said.

Tom Stenzel, president and chief executive officer of the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C., said the Childhood Nutrition Act, which overhauls the school meals program, mandates an extra serving of fruits and vegetables in school lunches.

He said the anti-childhood obesity effort and increased movement of produce in schools should benefit Florida growers.

“I really think we are at a breakthrough moment in terms of consumption,” Stenzel said. “We are finally focused on where it counts, with the kids. The schools are going to be a major factor. Florida is ideally positioned for the school year. Florida production may not be local to some of those Michigan schools, but where else will they get it? The winter production season because of this focus on kids will be a good opportunity for you.”

About  300 people attended this year’s convention, similar to previous years’ attendance, said Lisa Lochridge, FFVA’s director of public affairs.

The FFVA also honored one of its grower leaders and a retailer for promoting Florida produce.