TAMPA, Fla. — Leaders of Florida’s fruit and vegetable shippers have told Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack the industry needs immigration reform and funding to fight invasive pests.

During the secretary’s first official visit to Florida, Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Maitland,  and Mike Sparks, executive vice president and chief executive officer of Florida Citrus Mutual, Lakeland, told Vilsack about some of the challenges pressuring Florida’s produce industry at a May 14 Florida agriculture roundtable.

Vilsack hears Florida's produce industry concerns

Doug Ohlemeier

Mike Stuart (left), president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Maitland,  and Mike Sparks, executive vice president and chief executive officer of Florida Citrus Mutual, Lakeland, talked about pressing issues facing Florida growers to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack during a May 14 Florida agriculture roundtable in Tampa, Fla.

Stuart said the industry urgently needs comprehensive immigration reform.

“The H2-A rules are making the program untenable, and it is raising costs,” he said. “It puts employers in the possible position of breaking the law or not having labor. It also jeopardizes the farmworkers.”

Stuart discussed the threat of the tiny redbay ambrosia beetle, which spreads the little known laurel wilt fungus that destroys south Florida avocado trees.

Sparks said halting the spread of citrus greening disease remains the most troubling issue afflicting the U.S. citrus industry.

“We have a crisis,” he said. “This disease is devastating and affects all citrus producers in Florida, Texas and California. It can kill a tree in two years and can take out the entire grove shortly thereafter. Due to the rapidly spreading nature of the disease, it is critical for the USDA and congress to allocate sufficient resources to fight it.”

On immigration, Vilsack said reform is a tough issue that needs support from agriculture.

“We have people out there fanning the flames and making it harder,” Vilsack said. “At some point, both sides in Washington have to come up and say on this issue, ‘we are not going to play the traditional Washington game that you’re the bad guy and I’m the good guy’. We need to fashion bipartisan support for this. I think it’s up to agriculture to help frame it that way so we can make some headway on immigration.”

The forum, which was at the University of South Florida, also included representatives from dairy, meat and other agricultural interests.