(Jan. 21) SAVANNAH, Ga. — Grower-shippers shouldn’t expect any significant developments in the ongoing battle over immigration reform effort until next year.

Growers heard the latest on the immigration debate and learned more about other issues affecting Southeastern growers, such as the farm bill and food safety efforts, at the 2008 Southeast Regional Fruit and Vegetable Conference on Jan. 10-13 at the Savannah International Trade and Convention Center.

Panelists at a labor forum discussion said Congress won’t likely seriously debate the immigration issue until after the presidential election.

Because of an agricultural labor shortage, Dan Bremer, owner of AgWorks Inc., a Lake Park labor agent company, said the industry remains at a crossroads over the issue.

“There are all kinds of things headed toward labor,” he said. “What we have now is a severe labor shortage. We have had growers cut back here in Georgia by 25-50% because of it.”

Fruit and vegetable growers should benefit from the outcome of the 2007 farm bill, which is awaiting congressional conference committee approval, growers were told in an update on the farm bill’s progress.

John VanSickle, executive director of the University of Florida’s International Agricultural Trade and Policy Center, Gainesville, said provisions in the farm bill include creating marketing orders to implement food safety programs and specialty crop block grant programs that allow states to decide how to best financially help fruit and vegetable growers.

In a half-day session on good agricultural practices, David Gombas, senior vice president of food safety and technology for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association, told growers the industry must work to restore lost consumer confidence caused by the 2006 spinach crisis.

“You need traceback, traceability and trace forward,” he said. “Even if you put all the programs into place, there still are challenges. This is an industrywide issue, not a company-by-company issue.”

Payton Pruett, vice president of corporate food technology and regulatory compliance for the Kroger Co., Cincinnati, discussed the risks he sees in the produce industry and some of the steps Kroger has taken to maintain produce integrity.

“It doesn’t matter where you are in the chain, you have a role to play,” he said. “We are having to put more resources into food safety and are dedicating more people and resources to it.”

Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, LaGrange, said attendance increased by at least 100 growers from last year’s show. Nearly 1,900 growers participated this year, an 8% boost, he said.