(Sept. 27) NAPLES, Fla. — Scott O’Grady set the tone of the Orlando-based Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association’s 59th annual convention when he gave the keynote address Sept. 24 at the event’s traditional Cracker Breakfast.

O’Grady, the U.S. Air Force F-16 pilot shot down over Bosnia in 1995, recounted the harrowing events that made him a national hero. He spent six days eluding capture in enemy territory, eating ants for protein and drinking sweat squeezed from his socks. He said his sense of patriotism was never greater than when he saw the faces of 19-year-old Marines coming to his rescue, a half a world away from U.S. soil, under heavy fire.

As he described the events and explained that it was his religious faith alone that got him through, a chorus of sniffles rippled through the FFVA crowd of several hundred. It was an appropriately inspirational start to a convention with the theme of “Grown in the USA.”

Some of the convention’s educational workshops touched on aspects of the theme. In a session devoted to new trade accords and their impact on Florida producers, John VanSickle, an economist at the University of Florida, noted that country-of-origin labeling was the biggest victory for fruit and vegetable producers in the recent farm bill.

VanSickle said it’s useful to go back and look at the track record of previous international trade accords when analyzing what new accords might bring. He said Florida producers anticipated negative fallout from the North American Free Trade Agreement, and “things turned out worse than we feared.”

Some in Florida, particularly citrus producers, fear ongoing negotiations over the Free Trade Area of the Americas, a NAFTA-like agreement among 34 countries with a target date for completion of 2005. VanSickle said early analyses suggest the elimination of the tariff on Brazilian orange juice could reduce the Florida industry’s revenue by 20% at a time when Florida citrus growers are struggling to stay afloat.

What’s more, he said, Brazil surprisingly produces more tomatoes than Mexico — about 3 million metric tons annually compared to Mexico’s production of a little more than 2 million tons.

Elizabeth Nicolson, legislative director for Rep. Mark Foley of Florida, a Republican, said most of the Central and South American countries proposed to be a part of FTAA rely chiefly on agricultural exports.

In response to a question as to why U.S. negotiators can’t seem to demand reciprocity on matters such as tariff levels, Nicolson suggested that other countries want agriculture on the table and won’t compromise while the U.S. is willing to make the tradeoff in order to protect the interests of other industries.

Ken Roberts of the USDA’s Foreign Agriculture Service acknowledged that opening export markets is a tough case to make before the Florida fruit and vegetable industry. But access to foreign markets is critical to the growth of the industry, he said, and that access will become more constrained without U.S. involvement in further trade accords.

In another workshop on homeland security and its effects on agriculture labor, attorney Monte Lake outlined why reform of the H-2A guest worker program and provisions for adjustment of status of illegal aliens already working in the U.S. is more needed than ever.

Lake said Congress, in light of Sept. 11, has largely swept away concerns about Big Brother-type security measures and is proposing much greater use of things such as visas and drivers licenses that incorporate tamper-proof biometric strips.