Vanilla breeding proves to be complex challenge

By Vicky Boyd

To the home or commercial baker, adding a teaspoon of vanilla extract to a recipe may seem like a simple task. But to Alan Chambers, a University of Florida assistant professor of genetics and tropical fruit breeding, vanilla – and the plant from which it is derived -- is anything but simple.

Chambers is leading a team at the Tropical Research and Education Center in Homestead that is teasing out the complexities of vanilla genetics and will use that knowledge to breed hybrids suitable for South Florida. Their goal also includes developing cultural practices to help producers get into what Chambers believes could be a niche industry.

“My vision is to support growers who want to try something new and exciting,” he said. “I think demand will always outpace supply, so growers will be able to choose among multiple markets, from tourism to retail to supplying local industries like breweries. I’ve already had a few industries reach out inquiring where they can buy local beans. We’re just not there yet.” 

Strict definition of vanilla extract

Madagascar and Mexico are the largest producers of vanilla in the world, and the United States is the largest importer.

To avoid adulteration, the vanilla extract standard of identity excludes all species except for Vanilla planifolia and V. x tahitensis from being labeled as such. Some countries also grow V. pompona.

Four vanilla species are native to Florida, and a few hobbyists currently propagate them, Chambers said. Although they may not have a desirable flavor, at least one is resistant to Fusarium, the most damaging fungal disease of vanilla. Through crossbreeding, he hopes to transfer that genetic resistance.

“So there are some real opportunities to prevent the risk from the pathogen,” said Chambers, who is based at the Tropical Research and Education Center. 

But he also is thinking outside of the proverbial box when it comes to breeding new hybrids.
“My big focus is consumer perception,” he said. “Would the consumer avoid a vanilla extract if it were a hybrid between V. planifolia and V. pompona because of a regulatory definition, or does this actually create a niche for local growers to produce something special that consumers also love because of its quality?”

A genetic fingerprint

The researchers are two years into their long-term effort. As part of that, they sequenced the vanilla genome, creating a sort of genetic fingerprint. 

“Almost everyone who’s growing vanilla commercially is growing something that’s genetically similar,” Chambers said. “All of these may be susceptible to the same diseases.”
To that end, Chambers and Elias Bassil, an Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences assistant professor of plant physiology, have amassed a collection of about 200 unique vanilla lines that can be used to breed hybrids.

Using traditional techniques, breeders develop hybrids by crossing two distinct species that may not reproduce in the wild. The offspring typically have better vigor – known as hybrid vigor – or other improved characteristics compared to each parent.

Chambers already has made a few hybrid crosses and has harvested the resulting beans. Unlike green snap beans or even soybeans, vanilla beans first must be cured before an extract can be made. Curing involves killing the vegetative tissue within the bean, sweating the bean, and then slowly drying it and conditioning it – a process that can take up to nine months.

It is the extract, typically made by immersing the bean in alcohol, that’s used as flavoring.
Chamber’s first bottle of extract is sitting on his desk, and he’s eager to taste it. As he discussed the initial crosses, Chambers talked of anise characteristics or marshmallow flavor notes produced by some of the different vanilla varieties.

He also plans to enlist trained tasting panels, consumer tasting panels and industry representatives to evaluate extracts made from his crosses. 

Moving to the field

As tropical orchids, vanilla vines prefer indirect sunlight and require something on which to climb. This trait lends itself to co-cropping with mangoes, avocados or other tropical fruit crops, Chambers said. Much like the other tropical fruits with which Chambers works, vanilla is sensitive to temperatures below freezing.

The researchers recently established a field trial at the research center where vanilla vines will be grown on trellises under the shade of palm trees, which offers an efficient production system.

As part of the long-term project, the researchers want to optimize growing practices. How much irrigation should be applied, and how important is irrigation timing? What about vine nutritional requirements, and does slow-release fertilizer work better than regular fertilizer? Does foliar nutrition have a place? Even the color of shade cloth, should it be used to diffuse sunlight, could possibly affect plant growth.

“There are so many questions we need to get to,” Chambers said.

Register today for our 76th annual convention

FFVA 2019 is right around the corner. We’ve put together a great schedule of Issues Forums, top-notch speakers, networking and fun. If you haven’t already registered for the event, set for Sept. 24-26, do it today at

We’ll tackle timely topics in our breakout sessions. Water quality is top of mind these days, and after last year’s outbreaks of blue-green algae and red tide, efforts are underway to address the causes and take steps to prevent the events of last summer from happening again. One Issues Forum will feature a panel of experts discussing the need for workable solutions to reduce nutrients in our waterways and how we can work together to find answers. 

Access to a stable, legal workforce is a never-ending concern for producers. Craig Regelbrugge of American Hort and the National Council of Agriculture Employers will discuss how our industry is strategizing to make sure the administration understands our unique workforce needs. 

The convention also will feature an outstanding keynote speaker. During the traditional Cracker Breakfast, we’ll hear from former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, author of “Florida Made: The 25 Most Important Figures Who Shaped the State.” How appropriate that the No. 1 person on his list is Henry Flagler, who developed Palm Beach and built The Breakers, site of the convention. Another highlight will be Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who will offer her take on the state of the industry during the closing luncheon.

New this year is a leadership forum featuring a moderated panel of industry veterans talking about leadership strategies that have helped guide their business and offering their perspectives to the next generation of up-and-coming leaders. You won’t want to miss this discussion and the opportunity to meet current members and graduates of FFVA’s Emerging Leader Development Program.

In between sessions, there will be ample opportunity for networking with colleagues and connecting with our outstanding sponsors. The Florida Specialty Crop Foundation will offer a silent auction with loads of great items such as travel packages, fashion and jewelry, artwork, wine selections and more. Proceeds will benefit several of the Foundation’s priorities, including FFVA’s Emerging Leader Development Program and the Redlands Christian Migrant Association. The closing dinner with music and dancing also will feature a spirited live auction. 

To kick off the convention on Sept. 24, golfers can hit the fairways at the Ocean Course. Anglers will be treated to a great fishing excursion inland for the popular peacock bass. 

To see more about the convention and to register, go to . You also can download our mobile app by searching on “FFVA” in the Apple Store or Google Play. We look forward to seeing you in Palm Beach!

Reaching farther in the search for algae solutions

By Jack Payne

There’s an allegory about the drunk man who lost his car keys. A police officer finds him searching under a streetlight. The officer helps in the search and then asks the inebriate if he’s sure that he lost them near the streetlight.

The drunk man replies that he lost his keys across the street, but is searching near the streetlight because he can see better underneath it.

The “streetlight effect” is the tendency to search for something primarily where it’s easiest to look. For nutrient sources that feed algae blooms, farms have been an easy place to look.

In part because of efforts to monitor the effects of best management practices, we have years of data that measure the phosphorus and nitrogen loads running off agricultural fields. The good news is that although more work is needed, we have information on what practices reduce nutrient losses.

The University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences envisions a much broader search. We need a better handle on the nutrients emanating from all known sources, including septic tanks, lawns, and urban areas.

UF/IFAS has recently launched its Harmful Algal Bloom Task Force, the brainchild of the late Karl Havens, who directed Florida Sea Grant. He was such a respected expert on algae blooms that Gov. DeSantis had appointed Havens to the state’s new Blue-Green Algae Task Force before Haven's untimely passing in late April. 

The governor also appointed Wendy Graham, a UF/IFAS faculty member who heads the UF Water Institute, to his task force. And the task force will be led by Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein and by Tom Frazer, who had been director of the UF/IFAS School of Natural Resources and the Environment, whom the governor recently hired as Florida’s first-ever chief science officer.

Never before have we organized our algae experts into a statewide team.

The UF/IFAS team also includes Graham and veteran algae hand Ed Phlips. Michael Dukes, director of the Center for Land Use Efficiency, and Ruth Francis-Floyd from the College of Veterinary Medicine are on board. 

The team also includes Sherry Larkin, associate dean of UF/IFAS research, whose expertise in economic impacts on agricultural and natural resources systems can help get at the feasibility of a given course of action.

Ramesh Reddy, who has decades of experience collaborating with the state’s water management districts on water quality issues, brings history and expertise to the team.

We’ve also made exciting recent hires of scientists who show promise in contributing to the search for solutions. Willm Martens-Habbena in Fort Lauderdale uses microbial ecology to examine how microorganisms affect the location and intensity of algal blooms. Young Gu Her in Homestead specializes in simulating and monitoring the generation and transport of water and nutrients in stormwater, groundwater and nonpoint source pollutants. Dail Laughinghouse in Fort Lauderdale is an algae scientist.

The state and university task forces will likely coordinate the search for what’s causing harmful algal blooms, what the effects are, and what do about it. Our approach is to take as comprehensive a look as possible. That means continuing to measure nutrient loads from farms.

It also means using agriculture as a model for other sectors. What we’ve learned about measuring water quality on and near farms we hope to apply in greater detail in our cities and neighborhoods. Larkin, who is leading Florida Sea Grant on an interim basis, intends to continue on that track. She has also begun building on Havens' preliminary work on a state budget request for next year. 

What positions UF/IFAS as the logical go-to science source to address blue-green algae is not just its in-house expertise. We partner with water management districts, state and federal agencies and non-profit groups on water quality issues.

Havens established that a critical need is to determine the contributions of nitrogen and phosphorus from primary sources in agricultural, industrial, residential and urban settings.

It doesn’t make sense to look in just the easiest place to detect nutrient loads. But it takes a strong team with special vision to search in the harder-to-see places. The UF/IFAS algae vision is the product of experts from multiple locations, scientific specialties and generations.

Jack Payne is the University of Florida’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Hemp bill plows the ground 
for a potential new crop for Florida farms

By Mick Lochridge

A new bill that would allow Florida farmers to grow industrial hemp could herald an innovative era of agriculture in the Sunshine State.

Outlawed by drug laws for years, hemp production may hold promise for citrus growers hit hard by citrus greening and for vegetable farmers looking for another crop to bolster their bottom line. 

“As both our environment and economy change and trade wars continue, our farmers are asking for alternative crops,” said Florida Director of Cannabis Holly Bell. “Hemp has the potential to become one of the crops of the future for Florida agriculture.”

With a chemical makeup different from medical and recreational marijuana, the low-THC Cannabis sativa has potential applications for thousands of products such as fiber for clothing, building materials, cattle feed and pain-relieving CBD oil. 

Next steps 

With Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signature, the industrial hemp law will clear the way for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to draw up rules and regulations to implement it. That plan must submitted to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for approval, and there would be an opportunity for public comment. 

Many issues must first be sorted out, including a process for awarding permits to growers, identifying processors that can turn hemp into products and – perhaps most important – how to best help farmers produce a viable, profitable crop. 

In anticipation of the new law, agriculture researchers already had started working to determine what it takes for hemp to thrive in Florida’s environment. A two-year project under way by the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences seeks answers to a long list of production issues, including pest and disease control, fertilizer, growing seasons and varieties.

To gauge interest among Florida’s farmers, IFAS researchers have met with farmers and are holding workshops for more discussion and updates about hemp production.

Blue Sky Farms owner Danny Johns, who grows potatoes on 600 acres near St. Augustine, sees opportunity in hemp. “I have found that the one constant in farming is change, so we are always looking for potential alternative crops,” he said.

Turning that hope into reality is one of Bell’s key objectives.

“Florida’s deep agriculture heritage and resources, along with the farming infrastructure that exists today, make it an ideal place for hemp,” she said.

“By breaking into this market early, Florida can become a leading producer of a crop with about 25,000 known uses. And with CBD products currently outselling THC products at a rate of 10-to-1, this crop has the potential to significantly elevate our quality of life and strengthen and diversify our state economy for generations to come.”

Bell comes to Florida with experience helping other states join the hemp industry. In Tennessee, she worked to build the infrastructure to support the creation of that state’s cannabis industry after passage of its industrial hemp legislation. 

“One of the main things was helping companies access banking and basic financial services,” she said. “Regardless of how great your product is, if you do not have access to financial services like other industries, you will struggle to grow.”

“In Tennessee, I was at the forefront of helping the industry get off the ground and establish banking systems. I’ve also worked on the issues in other states,” said Bell, whose previous career was in banking and financial services. A native of Indiana with family roots in northeast Florida, Bell earned a bachelor's degree in agricultural economics from Purdue University.

Farm bill clears the way 

All of this hemp talk is possible because of significant changes in the 2018 Farm Bill that redefined hemp as an agricultural commodity and removed it from the list of controlled substances. The bill also directed the USDA to establish a process to regulate hemp at the state level through each state’s agriculture department. 

Acting on that, the Florida Legislature easily passed the agriculture hemp bill in the session that just ended. Senators voted 39-0 to pass the bill after the House approved it in a 112-1 vote. The law, if signed by DeSantis, will take effect July 1.

Now FDACS will create the rules “to implement the new statutes, which will provide the public the opportunity for public comments. Once the rules have been adopted, producers will be able to apply for permits to grow hemp,” said Max Flugrath, department spokesman.

He added that the department will work with the farming industry on the regulations. 

For farmers interested in growing hemp, the department has some advice: “Educating yourself is key to success,” Flugrath said. “Visiting another state and farms where hemp is grown is a good idea.”

Research to answer questions

There are many questions still to be answered to determine whether hemp can be a viable crop in Florida. The UF/IFAS Industrial Hemp Pilot Project is working to identify varieties and planting recommendations that can be environmentally responsible and profitable for growers, said Dr. Zachary Brym, the project coordinator.

“Florida's climate and markets are very different from other places growing and selling hemp,” he wrote on the IFAS website at “Most hemp seed and plant materials on the market are adapted to those places, so we have to start with variety trials to find marketable hemp that grows well in Florida’s diverse soils, climates, latitudes.

“Economic research is being conducted to find the input costs of growing hemp, expectations of hemp’s market value, and a break-even point to recommend when hemp is an ideal crop. Additionally, we are conducting a study for risk of invasiveness.”

Dr. Ruth Borger, assistant vice president for IFAS Communications, added that researchers will grow different varieties of hemp at several research locations.

Researchers also will need to know “how to grow hemp so it’s not high-THC like recreational and medical marijuana,” she said. 

This is a good time for Florida to consider hemp as a farm crop, she said, “because there is a growing interest across the nation.”

“We are always looking to expand Florida’s competitiveness in agriculture,” she said. But, she added, “We can’t tell you if it’s a good investment” until the trials end.

Cannabis boss Bell said hemp proved to be successful in other states where she was involved.

“In other states, farmers have grown from one acre up to hundreds for CBD production and made significant returns on even the small grows,” she said “The average acreage grown per farmer I saw in the last two years was about five acres. Farmers in other states make over $20,000 on one acre. So the amount of land needed is minimal if you are willing to do the work.”

Potato farmer Danny Johns, an FFVA producer member and member of the board of directors, said he is already thinking of when his farm could grow a hemp crop. “One potential scenario would be to follow the harvest of our potato crop with hemp as a secondary crop and potential paycheck.”

He noted, “Florida's climate should be a good fit for hemp production. We will need to find the right strains of hemp to maximize oil production while not spiking the THC over 0.3 percent, which is illegal to produce.”

“As with other new crops, there will be a learning curve on its cultivation as well as the added legal hurdles that will need to be navigated,” Johns said. “The projections on demand are definitely garnering attention, and who better than Florida growers to fill that market?”

Hemp vs. Marijuana

Hemp and marijuana are the same plant species, Cannabis sativa. They are legally distinguished based on their THC content. THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is the psychoactive compound associated with getting high. Hemp is Cannabis sativa with a THC content that does not exceed 0.3% by dry weight, while marijuana is Cannabis sativa with a THC content greater than 0.3 %. The 0.3% threshold is defined by state and federal laws.

Cannabis also contains CBD (cannabinoid), a compound that does not produce any psychoactive effects but has several well-established medical purposes. Some hemp and marijuana have a high concentration of CBD. The strains of marijuana sold in medical dispensaries are typically more CBD-dominant. 

Source: UF/IFAS

For more information about the Hemp Pilot Project, visit:

For the love of agriculture

Why do those of us in agriculture do what we do? 

For some it’s a calling. For others it’s their family heritage. For everyone, it’s an opportunity to help put nutritious food on Americans’ plates.

Regardless of our motivation, a love of agriculture is the common thread that unites us across different ages, locations and crops. 

In our latest social media campaign featuring Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association members (#FortheLoveofAg), we gave consumers a closer look into the lives of farmers. We asked producers and those in businesses that support agriculture what is so rewarding about their livelihood. The responses were as varied as FFVA’s membership. Some talked about meeting the daily challenges of planting, harvesting and marketing their crops. Others reflected on what makes a good day on the farm. 

Blueberry and citrus producer Chuck Allison of Wild Goose Farms talked about gratitude and the blessings of farming. “A good day on the farm is when everything's running smoothly, and you slow down long enough to realize what a blessing God has given you,” he said. “And in that moment you realize how grateful you are to be able to farm on productive land, to work with great people, and to produce a crop that’s healthy and nutritious.”

Some spoke of the joy of working outdoors. Tomato grower Tony DiMare of DiMare Fresh put it this way: “Being outside in the fresh air and Florida sunshine watching crops grow and producing a bountiful crop is exciting to me. Knowing that you’re producing a healthy and nutritious product to feed people in this country is very gratifying.”

For Alan Jones, who grows potatoes and green beans on Jones Potato Farm, sharing the farming experience with his family is especially gratifying. “Some of best days on the farm are on Sundays when you get a chance to sit back and look at what’s happening,” he explains. “There’s so much effort that goes into what we do, so my favorite days on the farm are when you can sit back with your family and just take it all in.”

#FortheLoveofAg also serves to remind the public that farmers and agriculture constituents protect our food supply and work hard daily despite ongoing challenges to feed the public nutritious foods. We hope consumers will feel more emotionally connected to Florida agriculture after seeing why farmers do what they do.

Read more about why our members love agriculture here . And let us know why you do, too, by sending an email and photo to

 Florida peach industry relies on education and familiarity

By Vicky Boyd

Florida peaches don’t have the same name recognition among consumers and retailers as Georgia peaches. However, the Florida industry – with the help of two Specialty Crop Block Grants – hopes to change that by educating buyers about the unique virtues of locally grown peaches.

For the industry to grow, researchers say they also will have to figure out how to overcome erratic chill hours, develop cost-saving mechanical pruning and thinning methods, and breed new rootstocks that can tolerate flooded conditions.

The Florida Specialty Crop Foundation is leading the educational effort.

Guided by a peach advisory board, the program has three objectives: to increase awareness and sales at retailers, collaborate with the Fresh From Florida program for in-store sampling and promotional materials, and increase social media presence, said foundation Executive Director Sonia Tighe.

The effort, which began in earnest in 2017, was funded for the first two years by a $148,955 USDA Specialty Crop Block Grant. The foundation successfully applied for a second USDA grant of $249,367 to continue peach promotional efforts during 2019 and 2020. 

The Florida peach crop typically ripens from mid-March through the end of May, depending on the weather. This allows Florida growers to essentially have the market to themselves after Chile has finished and before the Georgia and Carolina crops begin.

“So we have the opportunity to supply peaches when retailers can’t get them anywhere else,” she said. 

Florida peach packer/shippers send their fruit as far north as Canada and as far west as Texas, but most are sold in the Southeast.

A friendly reminder

Despite being in the third year of the marketing program, Tighe said, the state’s peach industry continues to remind retailers of its fruit’s unique properties.

“We still have to educate them on the season, what the peach looks like and what the flavor is,” Tighe said.
Florida peaches differ from fruit produced farther north: It’s smaller and has a deep red color. But the diminutive size also is a strong selling point.

“They’re the perfect snack size for kids and for school lunches,” Tighe said. “They’re also a fit for the Farm to School Program because the size meets the USDA requirements.”

The Florida Specialty Crop Foundation is working with the Fresh From Florida program on in-store sampling programs, which have seen huge responses. 

“The flavor is so unique that it really helps sell the fruit,” Tighe said.

A Canadian grocery chain that conducted sampling, for example, saw sales increase 319 percent from the week before. 

This year, Tighe said a major chain conducted sampling in as many as 50 of its Florida stores during Easter week. Fresh From Florida also helps distribute point-of-sale materials to retailers and puts its logo on the POS promotions and advertising. 

Dundee Citrus Growers Association has been producing and marketing Florida peaches for the past 10 years. Even so, CEO Steven Callaham said consumers and retailers still must be reminded of the state’s peach industry “and that we can grow a very tasty peach. That’s the big goal – just trying to expand the awareness in the marketplace,” he said.

Dundee packs peaches in single-layer 8-pound trays, 20-pound bulk boxes for food service. New this year are clear 2-pound stand-up pouches that create eye-catching retail displays.

When the marketing program first started, the peach advisory board recommended an Instagram and Facebook presence but voted against a website. This year, Tighe said, they also will work with five food bloggers who will develop recipes and help promote Florida peaches to their followers.

The social media campaigns are heavy January through May to drive consumers to retailers when the peaches are in season. However, Tighe said the group tries to maintain a presence year-round so consumers don’t forget about Florida peaches.

Research addresses production challenges

Florida producers typically grow four low-chill varieties, all developed by the University of Florida: UFSun, UFGem, Tropic Beauty and UFBest. 

As low-chill varieties, they require at least 100 to 200 hours of temperatures below 45 degrees to put them into winter dormancy. Without that dormancy, bloom can be weak and strung out, flower health can be compromised and fruit quality can be affected.

One of the issues peach growers have experienced recently is erratic chilling due to climate change, said Ali Sarkhosh, UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Science assistant professor and Extension specialist. Such was the case during the 2015-16 winter, when Indian River and Polk counties only experienced about 60 chill hours. During 2017-18, chilling returned and Indian River County had about 140 hours and Polk County had 163 hours.

Sarkhosh is working on some small-scale projects that examine whether plant growth regulators or fertilizers may help reset the trees’ internal clocks during years with fewer chill hours.

“We want to see if we can push these trees that receive the lowest chilling to flower,” he said. “The best situation is we would have our peaches in full bloom from the second to third week in January and we can harvest them the first of April.” He added that he hopes funding will come through to allow him to expand the project.
Managing erratic chill hours is part of his short-term research effort because if growers can’t overcome that challenge, mid- and long-term research goals may be moot.

“This is one of the fundamental problems,” Sarkhosh said. “If we can solve this problem, all of the other things would be fairly easy to adapt.”

In the future, he said, he hopes to look at mechanical thinning and pruning machines used elsewhere to see if they can be adapted to Florida growing conditions. To be successful, Sarkhosh said, growers may need to adopt different tree training methods.

Mechanization will help peach growers reduce thinning and pruning costs, which can run $1,000 to $2,000 per acre per season.

Long term, he added, the industry needs news rootstocks that tolerate wet soil conditions. Currently, most trees are grafted on Flordaguard, a UF rootstock with resistance to peach root-knot nematodes. Trees couldn’t tolerate the standing water left after Hurricane Irma caused significant damage. Some growers lost all of their trees.

“We’re trying some peach and plum rootstocks to see which one can tolerate flooding,” he said. Should they identify a candidate, breeders will use classical methods to cross it with Flordaguard to develop a rootstock that can tolerate both issues. The breeding effort could take five to 10 years before a new commercial rootstock is available for the state’s peach growers, Sarkhosh said. 

Critical issues keep FFVA working hard for members

Specialty crop producers’ plates are full when it comes to issues that create challenges to planting and harvesting their crops. And that means FFVA’s plate is full as well. The association has been engaged on numerous fronts both in Tallahassee and in Washington on behalf of its members. Here’s a rundown of a few of the issues we’re working on:

Trade relief for producers in the Southeast

FFVA is strongly supporting the Defending Domestic Produce Production Act, which would provide critical trade relief measures for specialty crop growers who are harmed by cheap Mexican product flooding the U.S. market during Florida’s growing season. President Mike Joyner and a contingent of other agriculture representatives visited several members of Florida’s congressional delegation recently to urge them to sign on as co-sponsors of the bill, which initially was introduced by Sen. Marco Rubio and Reps. Vern Buchanan and Al Lawson. Trade reform for specialty crop growers was dropped from the U.S. Mexico Canada Agreement during final negotiations, so growers are seeking critically needed relief in the legislative process. 

The legislation guarantees specialty crop growers the same protections available to other agriculture sectors and reflects the direction given by Congress under Trade Promotion Authority. It will provide a mechanism to help Florida’s farmers compete on fair terms and stay in business. 

Lake Okeechobee water level

FFVA has joined numerous other agricultural organizations and business groups in expressing grave concerns over the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ potential decision to lower the level of Lake Okeechobee to 10.5 feet. In a recent letter to the Corps, the groups strongly objected to the move, saying it would cause dire environmental and economic consequences. FFVA has called on its members to urge the Corps to rethink its decision. In the letter to the Corps, the group said, “The South Florida region has lived through prior agency decisions to lower the Lake in the dry season in anticipation of wet season rain that never came. Severe economic and environmental consequences resulted from those decisions. Many have experienced the harsh reality of gambling on Mother Nature and being wrong.” 

The groups “strenuously” requested that the Corps and the South Florida Water Management District stop discharges to lower the lake level and then work together to develop a new program to manage the lake levels.

Rules for truckers hauling fresh produce

New transportation regulations are causing major difficulties for growers, handlers and shippers of fresh fruits and vegetables. So FFVA and 25 other agriculture associations have filed a petition to the Federal Motor Carrier Administration’s Department of Transportation urging changes in the Hours of Service (HOS) and Electronic Logging Device (ELD) rules specifically for perishable fruits and vegetables. The petition emphasizes that to ensure public and driver safety, consumer safety and produce quality, rules governing driver on-duty hours for truckers hauling perishable fruits and vegetable should be modified as soon as possible.

The agricultural groups asked for two changes immediately: an allowance for drivers to rest at any point during their trip without counting this rest time against their HOS allotments, and exclusion of time spent loading and unloading from the HOS calculations. The letter states that revisions to the current Sleeper Beth Provisions, which allow for drivers to coordinate their sleep within allowable time slots, will address these concerns.

Additionally, the groups underscore the importance of aligning transportation rules with the Food Safety Modernization Act Produce Rule, which spells out food safety requirements.

The decision to file a petition grew out of concerns raised by members of FFVA's Supply Chain Management Committee last year with the implementation of the new rule. Committee Chairman Jeff Goodale, along with FFVA Chairman Paul Allen, FFVA President Mike Joyner, and FFVA Science and Regulatory Affairs Director Mike Aerts took those concerns to Washington, D.C. in January and met with Raymond Martinez, administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Working with members of the Supply Chain Management Committee and grower associations throughout the country, FFVA prepared the petition for submission. Read the petition letter here. 

On April 1, the U.S. secretary of transportation announced a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the HOS reform. 

Florida farmers join the fight against hunger 

By Mick Lochridge

For a quarter of a century, R.C. Hatton Farms has given back to its South Florida community by helping to feed the hungry.

Working with several organizations, the company each year donates more than 40,000 pounds of fresh produce – primarily cabbage, beans and corn.

 “Donating food shows the heart of the agriculture community in that we feed our country and every segment of the population, even those who cannot pay for it,” said Paul Allen, vice president and co-owner of the company.

R.C. Hatton is one of more than 100 Florida farms that participate in the state’s Food Recovery Program, which is administered by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. 

Farmers participate in the program in two ways. They donate surplus and slightly blemished produce to local volunteer and nonprofit organizations for distribution to those in need. Farmers also help the program by allowing volunteers to glean leftover produce from their fields rather than turning it under, according to Melanie Mason, food recovery specialist with FDACS.

For gleaning, R.C. Hatton partners with CROS Ministries (Christians Reaching Out to Society), which is based in Lake Worth and serves the hungry in Palm Beach and Martin counties. CROS volunteers routinely harvest leftover produce during the season, according to Allen, who also is board chairman for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association. Based in Pahokee, R.C. Hatton farms 12,000 acres in South Florida and Georgia. It grows cabbage, corn, sugar cane and green beans.

Created by the Florida Legislature in 1994, the Food Recovery Program is a coordinated effort involving FDACS, Florida farmers, wholesalers, retailers, community action agencies and other food relief agencies. Food recovery helps to supplement federal food assistance programs by making better use of a food source that already exists, Mason said. Farmers who donate produce may qualify for a tax deduction.

“Millions of pounds of surplus and slightly blemished fresh fruit and vegetables are destroyed each year, while many residents of this state go each day without food,” states the Florida law that created the program. “Food recovery programs can beneficially aid residents of this state who lack the means to purchase fresh fruit and vegetables by providing such surplus food to governmental agencies and local volunteer and nonprofit organizations for distribution to those in need, rather than continuing to see it destroyed.”

In 2017, FDACS added the gleaning initiative, which works directly with farmers and volunteers. Generally, farmers contact FDACS when there is leftover produce in their fields. A nonprofit organization then is identified near the farm with the ability to harvest and distribute the quantity being donated.

Once the farm and nonprofit organization have been identified, volunteers go to the farm to glean. FDACS has partnered with a nonprofit gleaning organization to ensure the gleaners are trained and for liability waivers, Mason said. 

The produce then is trucked to a nonprofit organization, which distributes it.

“Some large farms donate 5,000 pounds or more per glean, which is more than most food pantries can receive,” Mason said. “Therefore, their donations often go to larger food banks that have greater warehousing capacity. Smaller farmers will often work with their local food pantries as there is a smaller quantity to distribute.”

In 2018, the Food Recovery Program recovered 38.8 million pounds of produce. Since November 2017, 140,000 pounds of Florida produce have been recovered through the gleaning initiative, she added.

In addition to the more than 100 farms that participate in the overall program on an annual basis, seven have participated in the gleaning initiative. Mason said a number of other farms are planning for the 2019-2020 gleaning season that runs from November to April.

Donated produce ranges from “avocado to zucchini,” she said. Other produce includes cabbage, watermelon, potatoes, tomatoes, radishes, bok choy, satsumas, celery, collard greens and field peas. Lettuce is the most common type of produce donated through gleaning.

The state’s Food Recovery Program is not the only effort in Florida through which farmers can help feed the hungry. Feeding Florida, a statewide network of food banks, created Farmers Feeding Florida to recover and donate wholesome but unmarketable produce. It operates a fleet of more than 160 refrigerated trucks to transport donated produce statewide. There’s also FarmShare, which helped the Food Recovery Program distribute more than 16,000 pounds of satsuma in Gadsden County last December, Mason said. “I work with any non-profit food distribution agency interested in engaging in food recovery,” she added. 

“Feeding Florida can arrange to have donations picked up within 48 hours of your call, freeing up valuable cooler and dock space at your facility. With one call to our logistics department, your questions can be answered and your donation arranged,” Sherri Atwell, director of produce recovery for Feeding Florida, said on the organization’s website.

The state supports those efforts to feed the hungry. “FDACS encourages all of the work being done by Florida food banks to reduce food waste. Our goal is to continue to move recovered, wholesome produce out of the fields and into these distribution agencies,” Mason said.

At R.C. Hatton Farms, that desire to help those in need was the genesis of its donations program started by co-owner Roger Hatton. In addition to CROS Ministries, the farm donates produce to a food kitchen in Belle Glade and to the Dunklin Memorial Camp in Okeechobee, Paul Allen said.

 “We wanted to supply good quality food for the homeless,” Allen said. “We just see it as a different market, one that is just paid for in a different way.”

How you can help

Visit the Food Recovery Program and Farmers Feeding Florida websites for more information.

Florida's food safety is the result of many, but one 
shines in the spotlight

By Jack Payne

FFVA board member and tomato producer Tony DiMare can rattle off foodborne illness outbreaks by commodity, year and state.

He can’t name any recent outbreaks in Florida tomatoes. The accident-free run is itself no accident, DiMare insists, but the result of a commitment to food safety science and industry-wide participation in prevention programs.

In a letter he wrote earlier this year, DiMare singled out a University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences expert for his contributions to Florida’s winning streak. The Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association acted on that letter and others like it by naming Dr. Keith Schneider as FFVA researcher of the year at their annual convention in 2018.

Awards by their nature focus on a single person. So do nomination letters like that from Sue Percival, chair of the UF/IFAS Food Science and Human Nutrition Department and Schneider’s boss. Percival notes that there have been no foodborne outbreaks since Tomato Good Agricultural Practices (T-GAP) began. 

“Who can count how many outbreaks have not occurred because of his research and extension programs?” Percival wrote.

Schneider points out that it’s hard to conclude that one program is responsible for the absence of foodborne illness, but he will continue to champion T-GAP.

DiMare explained that Florida food safety is the result of many people’s efforts. Schneider, DiMare says, symbolizes an entire team’s efforts, and in highlighting food safety science, FFVA is also honoring all who have played key roles in food safety programs. Among those DiMare mentions are former Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Sciences and UF/IFAS legend Martha Roberts, and Pacific Tomato Growers CEO Billy Heller, both of whom nominated Schneider for the FFVA award.

When FFVA presented Schneider with a crystal trophy on stage in Naples in September at the annual convention, it marked a celebration of a community’s success, not just Schneider’s. 

Schneider, too, is quick to share credit with the same folks DiMare mentions. He praises the efforts of his colleague Michelle Danyluk, another UF/IFAS food scientist. He also regards his wife, Renee Goodrich, a UF/IFAS food scientist whom he met at a Salmonella training, as an essential UF/IFAS team member. He also credits the network of UF/IFAS Extension agents around the state for making safety a priority.

Schneider regards DiMare and Heller as influential pioneers in food safety awareness who encouraged their industry peers to invest more in the proper handling of food along the entire supply chain.

Schneider has distinguished himself with a work ethic. He averages an out-of-town trip every week to train industry members. He has made a number of middle-of-the-night drives to get back to Gainesville to teach. His students have gone on to work for the Food and Drug Administration and major food companies. 

Meanwhile, Schneider continues to research Salmonella and other microbes on tomatoes both in his lab and in packing facilities that DiMare and other industry partners make available to him around the state. 

Schneider credits industry buy-in for making it possible for his work to have an impact.

When Schneider started talking about food safety in 2002, it was a painful message to hear, that if proper care wasn’t taken, customers would get sick. Schneider acknowledged that he could sound preachy in the early days.

He had more success when he changed his approach.  Early on he would say these food safety recommendations are going to be mandates. It’s better to have those mandates reflect current industry practices than have regulators order changes in the way you do business. Just as important as whatever laws will go on the books, Schneider said, is that buyers are going to demand it.

In 2008, the association agreed and helped write legislation that mandated safety measures in the tomato industry. It was an act of self-policing in response to market forces over which they had little control, but a way to design their response.

Florida tomato growers got a lesson in how high the stakes were that same year. Tomatoes got initially and incorrectly blamed for an outbreak that made dozens of people sick. 

Despite a correction that the source of the sickness was neither from Florida nor definitively associated with tomatoes (it was ultimately traced to serrano and jalapeño peppers from Mexico), the damage was done. Confused consumers avoided tomatoes, and it cost the industry $100 million.

A decade later, FFVA has taken the conversation about food safety out of the shadows and into the spotlight like the one that shone on Schneider in Naples.    

Jack Payne is the University of Florida’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

New board member plays key roles in strawberry farming, Florida ag issues

By Mick Lochridge

Michelle Williamson, who grew up in the winter strawberry capital of the world, has stayed true to her roots. Manager of G&F Farms in Dover, the 55-year-old Williamson married into the berry business in 1982 and has since cultivated a deep knowledge of the industry and earned the respect of fellow farmers in Florida agriculture.

Over the years, she has served on a number of boards and associations that deal with agriculture issues. She recently joined the board of directors for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, a position where she wants to make a difference.

“I hope that we can come up with a way to advocate for agriculture with our consumers and lawmakers so that we can continue to provide food and fiber for consumers,” she said of her new appointment. “I also hope that we may be able to find new markets to replace markets that Florida growers are losing.”

Born in Dallas, Williamson grew up in Plant City, home of the annual Florida Strawberry Festival. After graduating from Plant City High School, she married Marcus Williamson, whose parents Glenn and Frances started G&F Farms in 1952. 

Today G&F Farms and Fran Berry Farms, also family-owned in Dover, plant a total of 95 acres in strawberries, producing about 30,000 pounds per acre for the California-based Driscoll’s company, according to Williamson. 

“We grow only Driscoll proprietary varieties,” she said. “They have been successful for us. We grow all of our berries exclusively for them.”

Williamson has lived on the family farm for 36 years, raising two daughters with Marcus, who passed away in 2010. Sarah Williams, 32, is the business manager for the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, and Samantha Bryant, 30, is the general manager for Home2 Suites in Tampa near the University of South Florida. She has three grandchildren.

In addition to her in-laws, she also works with her brother-in-law and sister-in-law. She said working with family is the most enjoyable part of the job. 

“I love the family aspect of the business,” she said.

As farm manager, Williamson oversees the human resources department and the food safety and regulatory compliance programs. The operation employs about 150 workers during peak time.

But she wasn’t always in the office.

“I used to do a little of everything,” she said. “If we were harvesting, I was in the field or in the packing shed packing the fruit. I helped with ground prep, planting and everything that was done on the farm.”

Her farming experience and insight also have provided her with opportunities to contribute to Florida’s overall agriculture industry.

She has served as a board member for the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, the Florida Farm Bureau state board and the Hillsborough County Citizens Environmental Advisory Committee. In addition, she has served as the state chair and vice chair of the Florida Farm Bureau Women's Leadership Committee, Vegetable Advisory and Labor committees, and the American Farm Bureau Labor Advisory Committee. 

She currently serves on the Hillsborough County Farm Bureau board, the Hillsborough Agriculture Economic Development Council and the International Council of Responsible Farming. She also is a member of FFVA’s Workforce Committee.

Former Gov. Rick Scott appointed her in 2016 to the governing board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District representing Hillsborough County. She is board treasurer. Last year U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue appointed her chair of the Florida USDA Farm Service Agency.

In addition to industry involvement, Williamson also has found time to give back to her community through Feeding Tampa Bay and the children’s church at the First Assembly of God in Plant City. She earned an associate degree from Hillsborough Community College and has completed course work toward a bachelor’s degree in management at Polk State College.

Whether in a classroom or a field of strawberries, Williamson continues to learn, to face challenges and to look for answers.

Her experiences with other Florida farmers have taught her valuable lessons. 

“While we may grow different crops, we all have the same challenges of urban encroachment, water, labor issues and consumers who don’t understand agriculture,” she said. “Florida growers are facing enormous pressure from imports as well as labor shortages. These are affecting all Florida fruit and vegetable growers.”

Of her new role on the FFVA board, she said: “I have been told I play the devil’s advocate very well. I think sometimes we get tunnel vision when we are with like-minded people. I hope that I can help to create dialogue that will help us come up with meaningful solutions.”

Artichokes could be key to crop diversity for Florida growers

By Vicky Boyd

As a leader of research into growing artichokes in Florida, Shinsuke Agehara isn’t out to dethrone California as the king of artichoke production.

Instead, the assistant horticulture professor with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences hopes to find a possible profitable alternative to the state’s mainstay vegetable crops.

“Many crops are not doing well,” said Agehara, based at the Gulf Coast Research and Extension Center near Wimauma. “The tomato growers, the pepper growers, the traditional vegetable growers – are looking for something that can be more profitable for them. I don’t expect this will be a huge industry, but we have to create more diversity. 

“We want to find more crops that some growers can switch to. We also want to find higher-value crops. We want to find crops that can take advantage of our warm winter climate, and I think artichokes can be one of them.”

In Florida, peak artichoke production is in January and February, when California is largely out of the market, he said. That could equate to potentially higher prices for producers because of lower supplies.

Artichokes also can be grown using many of the same techniques -- such as in-bed fumigation, drip irrigation and transplants -- traditionally used for tomatoes and peppers.

Agehara is not a newcomer to the edible thistle. As a graduate student at Texas A&M University in Uvalde, he studied the effects of plant growth regulators on several crops, including artichokes.

Along with Hugh Smith, an associate professor of entomology and nematology at the Gulf Coast center, Agehara has been involved in three artichoke research projects funded by Specialty Crop Block Grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and awarded through the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Gary England, director of the Hastings Agricultural Extension Center, also has been involved and is in the second year of varietal field trials. The goal is to see how the cooler weather in the northern part of the state affect artichoke production.

Like Agehara, England doesn’t envision Florida being a large artichoke producer, but he hopes the crop could fill a niche.

“I think our opportunities may be filling in that gap when California is out of product or low on product and also for local markets,” England said, referring to grocery retailers who prefer to stock locally grown produce when they can.

A star shines

Agehara’s first trials examined the best variety or varieties for Florida’s growing conditions. Of the six put to the test, Imperial Star, a variety developed by the University of California for production in the Imperial Valley, topped the list. He said the variety takes the least amount of chill hours. 

Helping Mother Nature

The second project, which is ongoing, examines optimum rates and timings for gibberilic acid, a naturally occurring plant growth regulator. Agehara is working with ProGibb LV Plus from Valent USA.

The plant growth regulator produces an effect similar to long periods of cold temperatures, forcing artichoke plants to produce buds.

“We have much fewer chill hours than Uvalde – Uvalde actually gets quite a bit of chill hours during the winter. It stays cool and gets cold,” he said. “In our area, chill hours are much more limited, so gibberilic acid application is a must.”

Agehara also found that the rates he studied in Texas weren’t high enough for Florida conditions. His goal is to find the lowest rate that still promotes the maximum amount of bud formation.

Testing agronomic practices

The third project examines different management practices, including planting dates, plant spacings and nitrogen applications. The plots at the Gulf Coast center were prepared using methods common to other vegetable crops, including in-row fumigation applied with drip irrigation under plastic mulch and five-foot bed widths. Agehara applied Goal as a pre-plant herbicide.

The artichoke seeds were sourced from a commercial seed company, then grown for transplants by a local nursery.

For this research, he started transplanting the first week in September and continued putting in plots every two weeks through mid-November. Because of warm fall temperatures, the earlier planting dates put more stress on the young plants. However, Agehara said Imperial Star tolerated the heat and grew the best of the seven varieties tested.

He also tested in-row plant spacings of 2.5, 3 and 3.5 feet. As the season continues, Agehara will monitor the plants for signs of disease and insect pests.

The winter growing season coincides with lower humidity rates, so Agehara said he doesn’t expect big disease problems.

Smith is helping with potential insect pests. Much like Uvalde, Florida is home to leaf-foot planted bugs. Although the inch-long insect can be seen frequently on artichokes, it doesn’t appear to cause economic damage.

Aphids also have been found on the plants but so far don’t appear to be injuring them. At the end of this season, Agehara said he hopes to have enough data to revise his previous publication, “Production Guidelines for Globe Artichoke in Florida,” available at

Fields of the future: Putting technology to work 

It may be hard to picture a robot harvesting strawberries rather than field workers picking by hand.  But that’s one of ways powerful technology can potentially help Florida growers address workforce shortages – and it’s coming.  

Technology advances and how they will affect specialty crop agriculture was the focus of one of the Issues Forums at FFVA’s annual convention. 

“We need to look at innovative solutions for our farms,” said Jamie Williams, Lipman Family Farms, who introduced FFVA’s convention issues forum, "Fields of the Future: Putting Technology to Work."

Gary Wishnatzki, owner of Wish Farms in Plant City, outlined an innovative collaborative technology project dubbed Harvest Croo Robotics, which is designed to address labor shortages in the fields. Changing demographics will exacerbate the existing workforce shortage, Wishnatzki predicted.

“Unlike commodity crops, strawberry harvesting hasn’t changed in 150 years,” he said. “But we are facing a global demographic issue. It takes young people to pick strawberries, and our workforce is aging. In addition, birth rates in Mexico are shrinking and at some point that nation will become a net importer or farm labor.”

Wishnatzki, who is managing director of Harvest Croo Robotics, said about two-thirds of U.S. strawberry producers are investors in the project, which has gained support from the state’s universities and a wide range of private-sector companies. 

“We have developed automated robotic equipment with a proprietary stereo vision system to identify ripe strawberries and carefully harvest them,” he said. “We have piloted this technology, which can also be used for plant location positioning and punching holes for planting.” 

The potential benefits of an automated strawberry harvesting solution are numerous, Wishnatzki said, and include:
• Lower harvesting costs
• Capacity to work on weekends
• Improved quality because of less bruising of berries
• Higher revenue with less overpacking 
• Energy savings
• Reduced cooler bottlenecks 
• Improved scouting of fields
• Better identification of problems such as spider mite infestations
• More accurate forecasting using artificial intelligence to count every plant rather than relying on a small sample size

Wishnatzki said a new version of the Harvest Croo vehicle will be in the field this month, followed by a fundraising campaign. “We have spent five years developing this technology, and it will probably be another two years until it can be commercialized, and we are already exploring future applications for this technology.”

During the same Issues Forum, FFVA attendees also heard from Dennis Donahue, director of Western Growers’ Center for Innovation and Technology. Donahue emphasized the importance of deploying advanced technology in the specialty crop sector.  

“Farmers are very innovative, introducing new products like cut salads and cauliflower pizza flour in the supermarket,” he said. “Now we need to shift our thinking to the production area in order to get in front of challenges like the shortage of labor.”

Donahue said artificial intelligence machine learning and robotics can play an important role for producers in areas as diverse as labor, water quality and food safety. For example, large databases with automated tracking applications can help health officials rapidly identify the source of a disease outbreak. 

In solving problems for its members, the Western Growers’ center focuses on crystallizing problems, identifying potential technology solutions, mentoring producers, beta testing innovative solutions and encouraging investment. 

“We also help technology companies connect with the specialty crop industry, giving them real-world feedback from growers,” Donahue said. “It’s one of the ways we provide business value to all participants in this sector.”

Anatomy of an outbreak:  What have we learned? 

It takes planning, coordination and communication to protect consumers and the agriculture industry from disease outbreaks, according to Dr. Trevor Suslow, former director of the University of California-Davis Postharvest Technology Center and new vice president of food safety for the Produce Marketing Association.

"Any time an outbreak involving fresh produce is in the news, a geographic region or a whole product commodity can be affected," said Suslow at an issues forum during FFVA’s convention in September. 

"But all too often, we think that it is someone else's problem – it can't happen to me."

The issues forum, "Anatomy of an Outbreak: What Have We Learned?" was prompted by an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak this spring that was linked to romaine lettuce from the Yuma, Arizona growing region.

Suslow's talk focused on multistate disease outbreaks, which constitute only 3 percent of issues, but result in 11 percent of sicknesses, 34 percent of hospitalizations and 56 percent of deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  Salmonella, E. coli and listeria, which have highly virulent subtypes, cause 91 percent of the most serious outbreaks.

It's not easy for epidemiologists to trace the origins of a foodborne outbreak, since it typically takes weeks or months for consumers to become ill, physicians to report patient illnesses, and investigators to identify a disease pattern. Then come the more difficult questions of trying to determine if the outbreak originated from a grower, processor or distributor, finding the root cause of the problem and communicating the lessons to the industry, Suslow said. 

Fortunately, the agriculture industry has adopted measures to improve the ability of researchers to trace and isolate the source of the problem, thus limiting the economic damage to other producers.  In addition, medical researchers are now able to identify the specific genetic aspects of bacterial and viral diseases, and find linkages between seemingly isolated cases, Suslow added. 

“An outbreak can often be traced back to a common convergence point,” Suslow said.  For example, researchers investigating an papaya-related salmonella outbreak found that small herds of cattle, a common source of the bacteria, had been grazing in groves of papaya trees. In other cases, the disease source might be a continuing problem, such as a seasonal rainstorm or a pathogen spread by a birds, he added.  

Suslow also offered several “lessons learned” to help reduce the risk of future outbreaks. For example, ice is often the “forgotten food” that needs to be handled with the same strict sanitation procedures as fresh produce.  Animal manure should be removed from common roadways used for harvesting leafy green vegetables, he said. 

“Water runoff, dust, animals, agricultural traffic, and other risk factors must also be addressed,” Suslow said.  In the Arizona romaine lettuce outbreak, for instance, contaminated sediment samples were found in the canal used for water management.

Noting the importance of scientific investigation into the root causes of outbreaks, Suslow said, “We need to be sure the new generation of workers understands what happened in the past, so we don’t continue to make the same mistakes.”

FFVA returns to its roots with FFVA Harvester

In a nod to its roots, the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association is renaming its blog FFVA Harvester. The Harvester was a monthly newsletter started in 1965 that was created to enhance FFVA’s communications with its membership.

The first issue of the Harvester was a one-page newsletter and featured a photograph of Miss Florida posing in a display of winter vegetables at FFVA’s 22nd Annual Convention. Other stories focused on a proposed Florida-Mexico joint promotion program for tomatoes, convention awards and a visit to Florida by the Agriculture Committee of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. George Wedgworth was FFVA’s president at the time, and the biggest issue facing the industry and the association was labor.

The Harvester grew to four pages soon after and remained that way until the early ‘90s, when the need to provide expanded information to members resulted in the development of a full-fledged magazine. The print magazine in stopped in 2001, when FFVA turned to a digital format.

Fast-forward to today, where The Harvester (formerly FFVA In Depth) complements the information available to its members through online publications such as The FFVA Voice and Today’s Headlines, member bulletins and an online member resource library.  What better way to honor FFVA’s roots than by returning to the name of our original member publication? We hope you enjoy it.

Growing our way to food security: Protecting the nation’s best interests 

By Jack Payne,

FFVA Chair Paul Allen speaks proudly of his grandfather’s service to the nation during World War II. E.J. Powell never had to fire a bullet. He never had to kill anyone.

Powell’s job was to keep people alive. His job was too important for him to be drafted into military service. He already was working on a national security task -- feeding and clothing a nation to keep us self-reliant.

The country had hungry mouths at home and needed food and fiber for millions of men and women in uniform abroad. The U.S. government decided Powell could contribute more to the war effort by continuing to grow cotton in Georgia than to fallow his fields and trade his tractor for a tank. 

Indeed, from 1940 to 1947 the Selective Service System placed Powell and other farmers in a special category, II-C, that was exempt from the draft. It was one of a very few exemptions based solely on a would-be draftee’s occupation. 

Although Paul Allen did not inherit his grandfather’s land, he did inherit a sense of national purpose that drives his work for R.C. Hatton in Pahokee near 

Lake Okeechobee. 

Allen and I share a belief that what those of us in agriculture do for a living protects our nation. 

Outsourcing agriculture to nations where it can be done more cheaply would hand over to others the decision of what we eat – and even whether we eat. A nation that imports all of its food is susceptible to having food used as a weapon against it.

Agriculture protects the security of people across the globe. The preeminent agricultural scientist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug said, “You can’t build a peaceful world on empty stomachs and human misery.”

The Arab Spring, a series of demonstrations across the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, was popularly portrayed as a spontaneous people-powered uprising against authoritarian government. Less noticed was that so many of the protests coincided with spikes in the price and scarcity of food. 

UF/IFAS and FFVA are committed to doing our part to feed the world. Food production in Florida is in our self-interest, whether that food is consumed on the other side of town in a farm-to-table restaurant or on the other side of the planet in Cairo or Khartoum.

As FFVA chairman, Allen works hard so Floridians can eat Florida-grown food. If we rely on others for our food supply, he says, we’re doomed. It’s like letting someone control our oxygen supply.

That’s why victory gardens were regarded as acts of patriotism during World War II. And when riveters were drafted but farmers were not, Allen’s grandmother Ruth Powell and his great aunts served the nation as welders in a Savannah shipyard. 

Allen sees himself and fellow members of FFVA as vital to the capacity of our nation to feed ourselves and therefore determine our own destiny.

For Powell, farming was an opportunity to serve. It’s been no less an opportunity for his grandson.

Jack Payne is the University of Florida’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Renewed interest in lemons as an alternative Florida crop

By Vicky Boyd

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. A small but increasing number of Florida producers have begun exploring a crop that can do just that – lemons.

The renewed interest in the tart yellow citrus is being spurred by the devastating effects of huanglongbing, or HLB, on the state’s orange crop. Although HLB bacteria also can infect lemons and produce severe symptoms, trees are likely to recover the following spring with few ill effects.

“We know from our experience with lemons in Florida that they can be infected with the (HLB) bacteria and develop high levels of bacteria in the plant,” said Dr. Fred Gmitter, University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences professor of horticultural sciences. “They develop all of the symptoms late in the year and they look really bad. Then they come back like gangbusters the following spring. They sort of outgrow the disease.”

At the prompting of his citrus advisory committee, Chris Oswalt, UF/IFAS citrus agent for Polk and Hillsborough counties, recently hosted a half-day lemon workshop at the Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred.

“When you look at some of the recent information, some of these trees hold up a bit better to HLB because of the vigor,” he said. “It’s something worth exploring.”

Oswalt said he isn’t advocating growers put in large lemon plantings. Instead, he said the workshop was designed to provide growers with more information about the crop’s potential.

“I don’t think there’s any way you’re going to replace a significant amount of the orange or grapefruit acreage with lemons,” he said. “And again, you need to have a market and you need to understand what that market is. We’re not the only ones producing lemons in the world.”

Lemons can go to the fresh market, but they also can be processed for juice and for peel oil.

Long before the recent revival, Gmitter -- along with Drs. Bill Castle and Jude Grosser, also of UFL/IFAS -- began a lemon improvement program. From more than 4,000 individual plants, they selected the top 50 or so based on peel oil production potential.

“But we needed more data on how they would perform in the field and how much oil they’d produce on a per-acre basis,” Gmitter said. A field trial was established on about 200 acres in Bolivia to gauge peel oil production.
The project was funded by a large beverage company – also the world’s largest lemon peel oil customer -- which wanted to improve its long-term sustainability.

Gmitter said researchers sometimes conduct experiments, not knowing what they’ll encounter down the road. Such was the case with the lemon trials.

“Low and behold, we might have some lemons that fit the interest in this area in Florida,” he said.

They have since put in small lemon variety trials in select locations within the Florida citrus belt to gauge their production potential. 

A lemon renaissance

In the 1970s when lemon production was in its heyday, Florida growers produced about 500,000 80-pound boxes of citrus annually. Before joining IFAS years ago, Oswalt worked for an operation that had lemon acreage on the southeast side of Tampa Bay. Because the region had a warmer microclimate than some other parts of the state, it had quite a few acres of lemons, he said.

But freezes in 1983, 1985 and 1989 along with a poor market likely contributed to much of the crop’s decline.

How many acres Florida currently has planted to lemons is subject to debate.

At the recent IFAS workshop, panelists provided their estimates that ranged up to about 4,000 acres. If those figures are accurate, Gmitter estimated about 3,000 of those acres probably had young trees. But because of lemon trees’ precociousness, they can start bearing fruit as soon as two years after planting in Florida.

The National Agricultural Statistics Service reported only 124 bearing acres of lemons in Florida in 2018. That compares to 47,000 bearing acres in California and 7,300 acres in Arizona.

A not-so-sweet side

One of the challenges with producing lemons is their greater cold sensitivity compared to oranges and grapefruit, said Gmitter and Oswalt. Oranges typically can handle temperatures down to 28 degrees for up to four hours before damage begins whereas lemons can be injured if temperatures dip below 30.5 degrees for even a brief period.

Technology, particularly with irrigation, has changed since the 1970s, and citrus producers have learned to use microsprinklers to protect citrus trees during mild freezes, they said. 
“What I’m going to try to bring out is a review of some of those practices that we sometimes forget,” Oswalt said of frost protection.

As long as microsprinklers can protect the trunk and scaffolding, Gmitter said lemon trees can frequently recover from cold damage.

“Lemon trees grow back really fast,” he said. “Within two years, they grow back in a major way. So I don’t think cold is necessarily a kiss of death.”

Another challenge is lemon’s susceptibility to citrus canker, Gmitter said. In addition, lemon trees tend to have thorns, which can puncture fruit or leaves and provide additional entry points for the canker bacteria.

As long as producers have solid canker-management programs that minimize fruit drop, the bacterial disease isn’t typically a big issue for fruit going to processors, he said. But for those in the fresh fruit market, fruit with canker lesions could be a deal-breaker.


Caldwell outlines his priorities for state's agriculture sector

Labor, trade and water are the most pressing issues facing Florida's agriculture sector, according to Rep. Matt Caldwell, the Republican nominee for agriculture commissioner on the November 6 general election ballot.  "I’m an optimist and believe the challenges facing our industry can be solved," Caldwell said at the opening luncheon for FFVA’s 75th annual convention. "We need to educate our state’s residents about these issues and lay out a pathway to the future."

Caldwell outlined his family's long ties to Florida and his decision to enter public service a decade ago. After being elected to the state House of Representatives in 2010, Caldwell was honored twice with FFVA’s Legislator of the Year award.  Now running for commissioner of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Caldwell said the role is different than anywhere else in the United States.   “It’s really the commissioner of dirty jobs,” he joked. “But everyone in the state interacts with this office in some way.”  

Turning to the issues facing Florida’s diverse agriculture sector, Caldwell said assuring an adequate supply of labor was a top priority. “You have to have workers here to get the job done,” he said. “We can have a controlled border and still be serious about filling our labor needs because those are not incompatible goals. The U.S. Congress needs to fix our immigration system.”

Caldwell said he hopes that Washington also will tackle the trade inequalities of NAFTA.  “We can have successful bi-national trade agreements, but the current agreement is a mess,” he said. “If we don’t change it, Florida’s agriculture industry could disappear.”

Calling water the “defining question for our state,” Caldwell said it is essential to balance the demand from urban, rural and natural resource areas.  For example, desalinization plants, water reuse programs and reservoirs could take some of the pressure off Florida’s aquifers.  “In a fast-growing state with 22 million people, we must have a vision and a statewide plan for this vital natural resource,” he said.  “We all need to work together to address this challenge.”

Also at the opening luncheon, Convention Committee Chair David Hill of Southern Hill Farms in Clermont welcomed a record-setting 468 attendees to the first day of the Sept. 25-27 event at The Ritz-Carlton in Naples.  Sonia Tighe, FFVA’s director of membership, congratulated Class 7 of the Emerging Leaders Development Program during their graduation and welcomed the incoming members of Class 8.

FFVA President Mike Stuart noted, “Our association has been here for 75 years, and our members are getting younger every year.  That’s the sign of a strong and healthy organization.”

Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association appoints Mike Joyner as new president

Mike Joyner has been named as the organization’s new president effective Oct. 15. 

Joyner’s experience in agricultural and environmental issues runs deep. Most recently, he served as assistant commissioner of agriculture and chief of staff for Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, helping to lead the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services for almost eight years. Before that, Joyner represented clients throughout Florida and the United States before the Florida Legislature and state regulatory agencies. He also served in public affairs and environmental affairs positions for The St. Joe Company and Progress Energy (now Duke Energy) and worked as chief of staff for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
“Mike is uniquely equipped to lead FFVA into the future,” Orsenigo said. “Given his experience and leadership in Florida agriculture, he has a keen grasp of the issues that Florida producers face in growing and marketing their crops. We’re looking forward to having him at the helm of our association.”

“I’m excited to join this association, which I’ve admired for many years,” Joyner said. “The positive influence that FFVA’s advocacy work has had on public policy is impressive. There are challenges ahead for agriculture, which means that advocacy is more important than ever.”

Joyner is a graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor’s degree in agriculture, food and resource economics. He and his wife, Alicia, have two daughters. 

Outgoing FFVA President Mike Stuart will stay on board for a brief transition period before his retirement, Orsenigo said. “Mike’s tireless efforts and contributions on behalf of specialty crop agriculture in Florida and nationally have been monumental,” he said. “We’re grateful for his leadership, talents, integrity and coalition stewardship over the years. Our volunteer leaders are committed to providing a smooth succession to new leadership.” 

FFVA Issues Forum topics are top of mind for Florida’s agriculture industry

As the November elections draw near, the agriculture community is watching key congressional and statewide races, including governor and agriculture commissioner. Attendees of FFVA’s 75th Annual Convention will get some expert perspective in the first forum, “Election 2018: A look ahead for agriculture.” Joe Clements, CEO of Strategic Digital Services, Florida state Rep. Katie Edwards of District 98, and political analyst Dr. Susan MacManus will discuss what the outcome of the elections could mean for the specialty crop industry in the near future and long term. 

With workforce shortages a stark reality for many growers, attention is turning to ways agriculture can innovate and move toward mechanization. In the issues forum “Fields of the future: Putting technology to work,” attendees will learn about how technology is shaping our industry as it changes to meet needs. Gary Wishnatzki of Wish Farms will talk about the farm’s investment in strawberry harvesting mechanization and how it is slowly working to address their labor needs. Dennis Donahue, director of Western Growers’ Center for Innovation and Technology, will discuss how current agriculture technology trends may help solve grower issues such as food safety, labor, water and data management. He’ll also discuss how Western Growers is approaching the future through its Innovation Center. 

The latest outbreak of E. coli 0157:H7 linked to romaine lettuce from Arizona this spring got the attention of many specialty crop producers. “Anatomy of an outbreak: What have we learned” will shed some light on what this incident taught us about outbreak investigations and the current state of traceability. Dr. Trevor Suslow from the Produce Marketing Association will share key takeaways from the outbreak and the aftermath that resulted in an unwanted spotlight on the fresh produce industry.

FFVA 2018 takes place Sept. 25-27 at The Ritz-Carlton in Naples. To see more about the convention and to register, go to

FFVA selects next class of emerging leaders

The Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association is pleased to announce the selection of 15 up-and-coming agriculture industry leaders for the 8th class of our Emerging Leader Development Program for the coming year.

Jake Brown, Tater Farms
Christopher Campbell, Lipman Family Farms
Juan David Castro-Anzola, PGIM Ag Investments
Cathleen Conley, A. Duda & Sons
Tiffany Dale, Florida Strawberry Growers Assoc.
Josh Griffin, Grimes Produce Company
Cooper Hopkins, Hundley Farms
Brittany Hubbard, S & L Beans
Tyler Jacoby, Highland Precision Ag
Zach Langford, Syngenta Crop Protection
Breanna Lawyer, Corteva Agriscience
Justin Newsome, Bayer CropScience
Carla Rojas, Southern Gardens Citrus
Alison Sizemore, Sizemore Farms
Nick Wishnatzki, Wish Farms

Class 8 members will be introduced at FFVA’s 75th Annual Convention in Naples, Sept. 25-27. Class 7 will graduate at the event’s opening luncheon.

Launched in 2011, the program identifies and develops leaders to be strong advocates for Florida agriculture. The program sessions provide a wealth of information on the many issues facing the industry as well as tools to communicate about agriculture. Ultimately, graduates of the program can get involved to improve the sustainability of specialty crop agriculture and to strengthen grassroots engagement in FFVA and other industry organizations.

The yearlong program includes meetings with legislators and state officials in Tallahassee, seminars provided by FFVA staff members and other experts on current issues, tours of venues to study environmental issues and water management, and visits to specialty crop production areas.

“Class 8 is a diverse group with an interesting mix of commodities represented," said Sonia Tighe, program director and executive director of the Florida Specialty Crop Foundation. "In addition to learning from the operations we visit, they have an opportunity to learn from each other. I'm really looking forward to seeing the class build relationships and grow leadership skills in each of their unique positions."

For a deeper look at the program, watch last year's ELDP highlights video or learn more on the Florida Specialty Crop Foundation website.

All roads lead to blueberry success for Ryan Atwood

By Mick Lochridge

As a first-generation farmer, Ryan Atwood made the right career moves to end up a successful businessman and respected leader in Florida’s blueberry industry. Drawing on his work as a research scientist, crop adviser, sales representative and extension agent, the pieces all fell into place.

“It was a long and winding road,” he acknowledged.

In the 18 years since he earned a master’s degree in forest genetics at the University of Florida, the 43-year-old Atwood has established himself as a go-to guy in the blueberry business. No wonder. He co-owns a family farm, a packinghouse and a farm management company. In addition, he owns a blueberry consulting firm and an apiary.

“He’s an extremely knowledgeable and respected grower,” said Brittany Lee, manager at her family-owned Florida Blue Farms in Alachua County. “As a crop consultant for our farm, he brings with him invaluable expertise from his background in extension, plant genetics and as a grower himself.” They also work together for the Florida Blueberry Growers Association, where Lee is president and Atwood is vice president.

Growing up in Seminole County, Atwood is home in Central Florida. He lives in Mount Dora with wife Alison, 41, and children Lillian, 14, and Eli, 13. Alison runs their U-pick operation (with help from the kids) and handles food safety compliance at Atwood Family Farms in Umatilla, where they grow Southern Highbush blueberries on 27 acres. 

Not far away, H&A Farms in Orange County expects to pack 4 million pounds of blueberries this year, Atwood said. He co-owns that business with Michael Hill, whose family operates Southern Hill Farm in Clermont.

Those businesses contributed to Florida’s $84 million blueberry industry in 2017, according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. That same year, farms produced more than 20 million pounds of berries on 5,200 acres. Those numbers have wavered in the past few years.

Through his consulting work and personal experiences, Atwood is very familiar with issues facing today’s blueberry farmers.

“I think too many blueberry farmers wait too long to replace non-productive varieties,” he said. “I have watched as fellow growers continue to try and turn unproductive varieties into productive varieties, while producing small yields. In the past one could get away with unproductive fields and still turn a profit.  However, those days are leaving quickly.  Florida blueberry growers need to have good yields going forward.” 

There’s something else playing into the blueberry equation as well.

“Increased competition from Mexico is going to reduce profitability of blueberries in Florida,” Atwood said. "Farmers who are quickest to adapt to new practices such as mechanical harvesting will continue to be successful.  Others will get pushed out of the industry by competition.  I expect it will be turbulent over the next five to seven years.”

His expertise and leadership could come in handy if that happens.

In addition to his role with the Florida Blueberry Association, Atwood will join the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council as the Southern Region representative in 2019. He is a member of the International Responsible Farming Council and a member of the board of directors for the Lake County Farm Bureau. He has graduated from both the Wedgworth Leadership Institute (Class X) and FFVAs Emerging Leader Development Program (Class 3). In 2015 he received the Florida Certified Crop Advisor of the Year award from the Florida Farm Bureau. 

“Ryan is a true leader in Florida agriculture, and the blueberry industry is better because of his involvement,” said fellow grower Lee.

Learning through research and sharing

After college, Atwood started his agriculture career as a research scientist in Georgia, where he managed a 150-acre pine tree orchard, harvesting seed for nursery operations. He returned to Florida and went to work for UF in 2005 as a fruit crops extension agent, where he was involved with citrus and blueberry products. A few years later he accepted a job as a sales representative and crop adviser for Keyplex, which makes plant nutrition products. 

“I got to see firsthand the installation of 70 to 80 percent of the blueberry farms in my area of Florida,” he said. “There were very few experts, unlike citrus where some families had been growing the crop for generations.”

In addition, he said, “Blueberry plants are very receptive to inputs.  You can change the plants’ health and productivity much more quickly than citrus (the other major crop I was working with at the time), which made it much more interesting to me.”

Through those experiences, he developed a network of farmers who sought his advice on blueberry production. In 2011, he launched AtwoodAG, a consulting firm to assist farmers. Today he works with eight farms.

“I provide horticultural recommendations, along with scouting for nutritional deficiencies, pest and disease symptoms,” he said. “I also believe I can add insight into what happens in the blueberry industry as I am involved in many aspects of it.  Not only do you have to be productive in your yields, but you need to understand the cost structure of packing and marketing your berries to be successful.”

Sharing knowledge is a two-way street, and that’s something Atwood appreciates.

“Being a first-generation farmer, everything I learned has been from others in the ag industry,” he said. “Everyone we meet has something to offer.  We all are unique, and we all have different gifts and talents.  I try to actively listen to what others are telling me.” 

“I love working with farmers,” he added. “They are the best people.  I also like the challenge of farming in Florida.  There is always some new disease or pest, weather event or regulation challenge to overcome.

“Just when you think you have everything figured out, it’s time to come up with new solutions to new problems.” 

Agriculture innovation insists on taking calculated risks

By Jack Payne

There are different kinds of stubborn. There’s a stubborn that’s cautious about change and a stubborn that insists on it.

FFVA board member Jamie Williams of Lipman Produce puts himself in the former camp. It has served him well, because it’s a check on impulsive change based on scant science. It takes a few years of accumulated evidence to change his mind.

Sanjay Shukla, a University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences agricultural engineer, is the other kind of stubborn. When he sees promise in an idea at his research center, he wants growers to adopt the innovation. 

Shukla knows that no matter how hard he tries, he can’t cover every real-world condition in the lab, greenhouse or experimental field. So he’s been working on Williams for a couple of years now to grow tomatoes in raised beds.

Williams listens to Shukla because he considers the scientist practical, looking to help producers. Shukla’s campaign for change is based on his finding that planting acreage in beds that are four to six inches higher and eight to 16 inches narrower than conventional beds can save on irrigation, fertilization, fumigation and other input costs.

That gets any grower’s attention. But it was still tough to figure out if the up-front investment needed to make the change would pencil out.

Shukla brought two other things to the table: his network of academics and luck.

Shukla appreciates that Florida agriculture does not stop at the Georgia border. So he was receptive to Williams’ request for help with improving production at Lipman’s Virginia operation. Part of Shukla’s schooling was at Virginia Tech, so he had connections there that allowed him to pull in the collaborators that would make possible a test of raised beds there.

The luck part? Shukla set up an experiment last summer to test resiliency to a hurricane. In Immokalee, Shukla had the raised beds, the plastic sheets, and the plants. He just needed a hurricane. As we all remember, he got what he needed in September. 

One of the few good things we can say about Irma is that it was the ultimate stress test of Shukla’s rows. Good, because Shukla and Williams say the plastic on Shukla’s raised beds withstood the wind and rain with almost no damage, while the majority of conventional beds just one plot over were heavily damaged. 

Meanwhile, Williams had a third data point. Irma thrashed the plastic in Lipman’s fields, and it cost the company plenty to replace it. This gave Shukla’s raised beds an unforeseen advantage, and Williams was ready to go bigger with a trial on commercial acreage. So far it’s been working well, Williams said.

Williams is now interested in another potential advantage of Shukla’s innovation. Shukla hypothesizes that raised beds contribute to good ergonomics. If workers don’t have to bend as much to plant, treat or harvest, that could save wear and tear on backs and joints.

Shukla’s job is to discover. He seeks answers to a big question: “What’s the best way to grow food?” What makes him so good at it is that he also answers a second big question: “Why do farmers do what they do?”

While basic research that could pay off down the road is essential (and supported by agricultural organizations), Shukla knows that for producers it comes down to whether science will make them money or save them money soon.

From where Williams sits, it looks like failure to take a calculated risk on Shukla’s innovation may be the biggest risk of all.

Jack Payne is the University of Florida’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Tom Mitchell picks a successful career in the grapefruit business

By Mick Lochridge

A pharmaceutical salesman turned citrus businessman, Tom Mitchell jumped into Florida agriculture with both feet and has been on the go since. 

Taking a job in 2009 with Riverfront Packing Co. in Vero Beach, Mitchell joined the third-generation Scott family business that grows, packs and markets grapefruit both in this country and abroad.  Before that, much of the Alabama native’s close encounters with grapefruit may have been a glass of juice.

For some, that inexperience in a challenging industry could be a handicap. But for Mitchell, it was an opportunity.

“My lack of experience in the industry has been a benefit because I have been motivated to learn as much as I can,” said Mitchell, 41, vice president of the packing company. “I’ve also been blessed to have a mentor, (Riverfront President and CEO) Dan Richey, help with this process.”   

Armed with confidence and determination, Mitchell embraced his new career. Eager to learn the business, he accepted leadership positions with Florida Citrus Mutual, Florida Citrus Packers and the Indian River Citrus League. He graduated from FFVA’s Emerging Leadership Development Program and is a member of the current class of the Wedgworth Leadership Institute for Agriculture and Natural Resources. In 2013 he was part of a delegation that traveled to Japan with Gov. Rick Scott to promote economic ties with Florida.

“I have a long history of leadership positions throughout my life, starting as early as student body president in high school,” he said. “My biggest strength has always been my ability to relate to all different types of people and build consensus.”

Mitchell grew up in Gadsden, Ala., a riverfront city about an hour’s drive northeast of Birmingham. He majored in biology at the University of Richmond and then earned an MBA at the University of Alabama. A longtime Auburn University fan, he said he “ate a lot of crow” to attend Alabama. To this day, he still roots for the Tigers “and any team playing the Tide.”

After college he worked for a few years as a sales representative for Eli Lilly & Co. and received the company’s district sales achievement award in 2002.

At a wedding, he met his future wife, Cheryl, who earlier had earned a Master of Science degree at Auburn. Today she is a speech-language pathologist in Fort Pierce, where they are raising son Will, 14, and daughter Anna, 11. 

Cheryl, 41, was Mitchell’s link to the Sunshine State. A native of Fort Pierce, she is a member of the Scott family that owns Scott Family Groves, Scott Citrus Management, Scott Marketing and Riverfront Packing, where Mitchell works.

Riverfront is “a great balance of technology and personal oversight,” he said. “Its experienced management team has adapted the facility to ensure the best quality is being packed for the customer.” High-tech gear takes a 3-D image of the fruit to determine its size, while sensors measure the Brix of each piece of fruit. 

“Despite the modern technology, the personal touch is so important to delivering a consistent product,” he added. “Each piece of grapefruit is personally graded multiple times and then hand-packed by a member of the Riverfront team.” The packinghouse has about 115 employees.

“Our goal has always been to produce a high-quality product for our customers while maximizing the return to the growers,” he said.  

This year the operation packed more than 938,000 cartons of fruit, Mitchell said, “making us one of the largest, if not the largest,” in Florida. That volume was much higher before citrus greening, he added, when the company packed upward of 1.6 million cartons.  

For Mitchell, teamwork and working relationships are key. “The most rewarding aspects of working in Florida agriculture have been the relationships I have built,” he said. “There are so many wonderful people that I have met along the way who are so passionate about what they do.”

“Every year there are major issues facing our industry, and with the help of strong leadership, these issues are met head-on,” he said. “This will and determination to find solutions to problems is common with all people in agriculture and something that I greatly admire.”

Dustin Grooms runs the family strawberry farm with love and duty

By Mick Lochridge

Eight years in the Army taught Dustin Grooms a lot about fairness, hard work and duty. Blending that education with the life lessons he learned from his father growing up, he was armed with the maturity and know-how to take on the responsibility of running his family’s strawberry farm. 

“Growing produce is a role that I take seriously,” said Grooms, the 36-year-old farm manager at Fancy Farms in Plant City. “I considered myself a hard but fair drill sergeant, and I apply that to farming, although my crew tells me we aren’t in the Army anymore. 

“The same principles that my dad taught me I try to instill in anyone who works for me. One of the seven Army values is duty, which means to fulfill your obligations. As an American farmer, it is my duty to provide safe, quality and delicious berries to the consumer.”

Born and raised on the farm that his parents started in 1974, the young Grooms worked alongside his parents and decided that was where he belonged.

“When I was little I told them I didn’t need to go to school, that I was going to stay right here on the farm and be just fine,” he said. “I didn’t go to college, but I was in the Army for 8½ years. I’m back on the farm, and I feel like I am doing just fine.”

He joined the family business when he left the service in 2007. Today he runs the operation, and his aunt is the office manager. His parents still lend a hand and advice. “My father is the only retired person I know who comes to work every day,” Grooms said. 

“I have learned from my parents to trust in the Lord and He will take care of you,” he said. “Also to do everything with 110 percent effort, no matter what task is at hand.”

Fancy Farms grows berries on 170 acres, a big jump from the original 15. The farm has about 10 year-round employees and hires up to 175 during harvest season, typically from December to March. Grooms said he aims to produce about 500,000 pounds of berries each season. Wish Farms, also in Plant City, handles packing and distribution. 

The crop is primarily Florida Radiance, but the farm also has planted Sweet Sensations and Florida Beauty. Grooms said he is looking forward to a new cultivar, Florida Brilliance, next year.

A graduate of Class 4 in FFVA’s Emerging Leader Development Program, Grooms praised the group: “The Florida future of agriculture is bright. FFVA has created this Emerging Leader Development class, and we’ve seen people rise up who are just as passionate about agriculture as I am. They’re there to make a difference. And we see people standing up. And people are getting excited about food.”

Grooms and wife Alison, who recently became an extension agent, are setting examples as good stewards of the land for their daughter, Skyler, 12. 

“I love farming. I love every aspect of it. I love the challenges that I face every day,” he said. “I love to plant the seeds, to plant the plant. I love the growing of it. I love the taking care of it.

“The No. 1 thing is actually getting to eat it. And every day I get to go out there and bend down and pick a strawberry and I get to eat it. That’s what we live for, right there.”

View Dustin Groom's member spotlight video on FFVA's YouTube channel. 

Brittany Lee charts a winning course with Florida Blue Farms

By Mick Lochridge

Brittany Lee sets a great example for young son Jeb. An award-winning leader in Florida’s blueberry industry, Lee will pass along her drive to work hard and make a difference, whether it’s in a farm field or in a boardroom.

“I hope what Jeb learns from me is that hard work and dedication can be truly rewarding,” she said. “That being able to point to a plentiful harvest is a real and tangible thing. It’s powerful to see the success that comes from a year’s worth of long hours and hard work.”

Career commitment seems to come naturally to Lee, the 35-year-old vice president and farm manager of family-owned Florida Blue Farms, which planted its first trees in 2010 on land just south of Waldo in eastern Alachua County. 

“I love it,” she said. “It’s exciting every day, and you never have the same problem twice.”

Because it sits in a former stand of pine trees that left the land acidic, Florida Blue grows its Southern Highbush varieties in soil, not in pine mulch like many blueberry farms. 

“Blueberries were the perfect crop for this location, not only because of the ideal soils and organic matter, but also because the University of Florida IFAS breeding program has developed many varieties that are perfectly suited for our climate,” Lee said. The farm grows Farthing, San Joaquin, Meadowlark and Indigocrisp varieties.

Both the state and the blueberry industry in 2017 recognized Lee for her farming expertise and concern for the environment. She was elected president of the Florida Blueberry Growers Association and won the Florida Farm Bureau Young Farmer & Rancher Achievement Award. In addition, the farm received the Agricultural-Environmental Leadership Award from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. She also serves as the Florida delegate for the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council.

Those honors add to a resume of Lee’s involvement with community service groups and agriculture organizations. She is a member of the Governmental Relations and Membership committees for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association and was a member of the Class IX of the Wedgworth Leadership Institute for Agriculture and Natural Resources.
She also stays active in a number of community groups in the Gainesville area, involvement that she believes is important. “A community is only as strong as the people who live and work there are committed to making it,” she said.

Her family is part of that community. Lee and husband Ryan Brown, 33, who teaches physical education at Queen of Peace Catholic Academy in Gainesville, live in the college town. Son Jeb, which stands for Joseph Edward Brown, just celebrated his first Christmas.

After graduating from the University of Florida in 2005, Lee joined her father’s company, Florida Woodland Group, as a sales representative. She holds real estate licenses in Florida and South Carolina. 

It was through that connection that Florida Blue Farms was created. The real estate company owned the acreage for silviculture. Initially, the family hired a management company to run the blueberry farm, but that arrangement eventually lead to the family taking it over.

In the past seven years, the farm has expanded from an initial 50 acres to 110 acres of blueberry trees that produce 750,000 pounds of berries a year. That’s enough to fill two semi-truck loads a day during picking season, which starts in late March. 

The farm typically has six to seven full-time employees year-round, but the payroll swells to 150 during picking season.  Naturipe distributes its product.

Producing safe and healthy food for the public holds a top priority for Lee.

“Agriculture is important for several reasons,” she said. “It’s the passion and dedication of the agricultural community that works extremely hard to provide a food source for our community and the worldwide consumer.  

“It’s also one of the major economic drivers in the state of Florida and the U.S.”

Alan Jones: ‘Protect the environment, provide safe local food’

By Mick Lochridge

Alan Jones knows hard work pays off.  From a high school teenager helping on his family’s farm to running a successful agriculture operation today, he has cultivated a work ethic that has earned high praise from his industry.

Recognized for his innovative farming practices to protect Florida’s natural resources, Jones in September joined the 40-member board of directors for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, whose members represent the vast majority of fresh fruit and vegetable production the state.

“The first year I’ll sit back and watch and see how things work,” he said of his board involvement. “Then I’ll see how I can make a positive impact. I like to talk about solutions, not just about problems.”

That kind of approach to issues has resulted in an ever-expanding business for Jones, his wife, Leslie, and Jones Potato Farm in Parrish in Manatee County. There they harvest about 50 million pounds of potatoes, for chipping and table stock, and 200,000 bushels of green beans annually on more than 3,000 acres. Last year, he built a packinghouse onsite for the beans. In addition, his company owns 1,200 acres of citrus in Hendry and Lee counties. The farm also has about 200 beef cattle.

“My fiduciary responsibility is to do what is good for me as a farmer and what is good for the consumer -- to deliver the highest-quality product at the least cost,” said the 50-year-old company president and CEO.

Jones said he follows Best Management Practices “to use the least amount of water, pesticides and fertilizer to produce the highest-quality, safe beans and potatoes.”

His efficient farming methods include GPS technology to apply a precise amount of fertilizer in a precise location. To conserve water, he combines a furrow ditch system with watering pivots. Float wells let him gauge irrigation based on the water table.

As a testament to his concern for the environment, the farm has received several awards:

• The 2017 Grower Achievement Award from American Vegetable Grower magazine, in cooperation with United Fresh Produce Association, for the farm’s commitment to sustainable practices and community involvement, including supplying homeless shelters with fresh produce, farm-to-school movement/// and providing vegetables to local areas where fresh produce is not easily available. 
• The 2016 Agricultural Environmental Leadership Award from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services for using innovative farming techniques that protect and conserve the state’s natural resources.
• The 2013 4R Advocate Award from the 4R Nutrient Stewardship program for the farm’s goals to optimize use of fertilizer and improve water quality. Developed by fertilizer and plant nutrition groups, the program stands for “the right source and the right rate at the right time, in the right place.”

Yet owning his own farm was a distant star to a young Alan Jones, who in high school was climbing out of bed before dawn twice a week to deliver bags of greens from his family’s farm to Publix stores in St. Augustine. 

“I was the only kid waking up at 3 a.m. to go to work,” Jones recalled about his job in the ’80s. “But that taught me how to make money.”

That produce was from Jones Brothers Farm, owned by his father and uncle. A longtime member of FFVA, the farm was primarily a truck farming operation that also produced potatoes, onions and watermelons.

“Dad taught me that there’s hard work in agriculture and farming, but there’s money, too,” Jones said. “They go hand in hand.”

In 1986 his father moved to Manatee County to start a new farm. At the time, the younger Jones was studying food and resource economics at the University of Florida and helping out on the farm when he could. He eventually would join his father full-time. Around 2000, Jones took over the farm and bought out his dad. Since then, the business has grown from 450 acres to more than 4,000 with 25 employees.

“I chose to invest my money in land when everybody else was buying dot-coms,” he said.

Along with growing a business, Alan and Leslie, whom he met at UF, also are raising a family. Their daughter, Madeline, is a junior studying nursing at Georgia Southern University; their son Harrison is a high school senior who plans to study agriculture in college; and son Carson is a high school sophomore. The family lives in Sarasota, less than 30 minutes from the farm.

When he’s not farming, Jones likes to go saltwater fishing and play golf. And living on Florida’s southwest coast, he’s in the perfect place to enjoy both.

It’s also an area bustling with new commercial and residential development heading east along U.S. Highway 301 toward the unincorporated Parrish. That could mean something new for Jones, who envisions a day when he may consider development on some of his farmland. “I enjoy long-range planning,” he said.

But until that day, he remains committed to his twin priorities:  “Protect our natural resources and provide a safe, local food source.”

Cracker Breakfast speaker turns his limitations into artistic creativity

By Mick Lochridge

Permanent nerve damage in their drawing hand would cripple the dreams of many artists. But for Phil Hansen, his physical limitations opened up myriad new paths for his creativity.

Widely recognized for his multimedia art projects, YouTube videos and his “Embrace the Shake” TED Talk, Hansen will bring his message about innovation and personal obstacles to the Cracker Breakfast on Sept. 26 during FFVA 2018, the association’s 75th annual convention. 

At 38, the self-taught artist lives and works in Minneapolis when he is not on the road creating, writing and speaking. That road started for Hansen growing up in Seattle, where in high school his style of choice was pointillism, using tiny dots to form images. After years of working with that technique, his hand started to shake. A short stint in art school ended in frustration, leading him to quit art altogether. 

He described his crisis in the 2013 TED Talk: 

“The shake developed out of a single-minded pursuit of pointillism, just years of making tiny, tiny dots. And eventually these dots went from being perfectly round to looking more like tadpoles because of the shake. So to compensate, I'd hold the pen tighter, and this progressively made the shake worse, so I'd hold the pen tighter still. And this became a vicious cycle that ended up causing so much pain and joint issues I had trouble holding anything. And after spending all my life wanting to do art, I left art school, and then I left art completely.

“But after a few years, I just couldn't stay away from art, and I decided to go to a neurologist about the shake and discovered I had permanent nerve damage. And he actually took one look at my squiggly line, and said, ‘Well, why don't you just embrace the shake?’ "

“So I did. I went home, I grabbed a pencil, and I just started letting my hand shake and shake. I was making all these scribble pictures. And even though it wasn't the kind of art that I was ultimately passionate about, it felt great. And more importantly, once I embraced the shake, I realized I could still make art. I just had to find a different approach to making the art that I wanted.”

In the years since, Hansen’s art career has gained international fame. His clients include the Grammy Awards, Walt Disney Co., Skype, Mazda and the Rockefeller Foundation. He has been interviewed by a number of print and broadcast outlets worldwide, and he is the author of Tattoo A Banana and When I was 7. In addition, he is the founder of Goodbye-Art Academy, an art education platform that offers a library of high-quality instructional videos to educators and students for free.

“Looking at limitations as a source of creativity changed the course of my life,” Hansen told the TED audience. “Now when I run into a barrier or I find myself creatively stumped, I sometimes still struggle but I continue to show up for the process and try to remind myself of the possibilities, like using hundreds of real, live worms to make an image, using a pushpin to tattoo a banana, or painting a picture with hamburger grease.”

FFVA asked Hansen to answer a few questions as a preview of his convention appearance.
FFVA: How do you describe your art? 
Hansen: I do a lot of different kinds of art. I define most of my art as fragmentation portraiture, but I like to mix it up. I am a multimedia artist who uses different methods and materials. 

FFVA: Do you work in a studio daily?
Hansen: Yes, daily, nightly – as much as I possibly can. Lately I have been on the road a lot, so I have been figuring out ways to continue to make art wherever I am – in airports, hotels, you name it. 

FFVA: What are a few examples of the different styles of your work?
Hansen: I’ve worked with so many different materials, from a typewriter to smashing records to working with people’s stories. That is probably the most unique style I have. I ask people to share a story or memory with me and then I handwrite those stories to create an image. 

FFVA: What did you do in the three years after you quit art school?
Hansen: I was in denial about my hand tremor, and I went to school to become a dentist. A dentist with a tremor...what could go wrong? Needless to say, that didn’t work out. I then went to the University of Washington for business and eventually got a degree to become an X-ray tech – all of that before finding my way back into art.

FFVA: How did you decide to resume your work in art? 
Hansen: It wasn’t a decision exactly. It happened naturally, a little at a time. It was a slow process easing back in because of this lingering fear of failing and losing the dream again.

FFVA: What motivates you as an artist?  
Hansen: My biggest motivator is simply the desire to create. I would rather be making something than not. This can lead me to be a little boring because I don’t know the latest shows or the latest news. But I’ll take that tradeoff to create a little more.

FFVA: What do you enjoy about speaking to business groups and organizations such as the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association?  
Hansen: There are a lot of things that I enjoy when I speak to business groups and organizations, especially when the organization is so critical for America's health and well-being as the FFVA is. Showing how creativity and innovation can come from constraints and limitations is a message that, I think, helps people rise above any challenge and succeed no matter what comes in the way. It is rewarding work, and I look forward to speaking more about it.

FFVA: What challenges in your own life do you share with today’s farmers? 
Hansen: I think that the challenges that today’s farmers face are enormous and universal, in a sense of how rapidly the world and global market are changing. My story digs into how these challenges can be our greatest source of growth.

FFVA: What message do you hope resonates with Florida’s farmers at the FFVA convention?
Hansen: I hope that my message of finding creativity within limitations will inspire Florida’s farmers to reflect inward for resources that can transform challenges into opportunities for success.

Watch Hansen's video message for FFVA 2018 attendees.

For more information
FFVA’S 75th Annual Convention will be held Sept. 25-27 at The Ritz-Carlton in Naples. To see more about the convention and to register, go to To download the group’s mobile app, search “FFVA” in the Apple Store or Google Play.

To learn more about artist Phil Hansen, visit his website at To see his TED Talk, go to

Hops gaining interest as alternative Florida crop

By Vicky Boyd

As the craft beer industry continues to grow with new breweries sprouting up weekly, so does the demand for locally grown hops.

Florida is no exception, with roughly 200 small-scale craft breweries in the state. It was this burgeoning industry that planted the seed in the head of Simon Bollin, agribusiness development manager at the Hillsborough County Economic Department, about trying to develop a Florida-grown hops industry.

“I was talking with my boss about the direction of my program and the craft beer industry came up,” Bollin said. “I went out and started meeting with craft breweries in Hillsborough County. Two issues consistently came up, and one of those was hops. At the time, the price of hops was fairly high, if you could even get hops.”

That led Bollin to meet with researchers at the University of Florida’s Gulf Coast Research and Education Center, who conducted a greenhouse trial with three different varieties to determine whether they would even grow. The success of the project prompted them to apply for two sequential Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services specialty crop research grants to build a hopyard and further test whether hops might be an agronomically viable crop for the state.

Several local craft breweries also have jumped aboard and have offered in-kind or financial support. Involved in the project are Drs. Zhanao Deng, Shinsuke Agehara, Gary Vallad, Hugh Smith and Johan Desaeger, all of GREC, and Dr. Brian Pearson of the Mid-Florida Research and Extension Center in Apopka.

What are hops?

The seed cone of a plant, hops don’t comprise the largest ingredient in beer by volume by any means. But they are crucial to imparting distinct flavor characteristics to a brew. In the United States alone, more than 50 hops varieties are commercially cultivated, according to the International Hop Growers’ Convention. The plants are vines, growing up to 25 feet each season. Producers in the northern United States train the vines up wire and wooden trellises topping 18 feet. The plants don’t reach peak production until about the fourth year, but they typically continue to yield for more than 10 years.

Uncharted waters

With most of the hops research conducted in the northern latitudes, the Florida group was entering uncharted waters. In the third year of their project, the researchers already have had to overcome two hurdles. But Agehara, who is looking at optimum plant spacing and nutrient requirements for the popular Cascade and Chinook varieties, isn’t discouraged.

“When we have to overcome those environmental challenges, sometimes they become opportunities,” he said.

When they planted their first hopyard in 2016, many of the rhizomes they ordered were subsequently found infected with several viruses, which are common to traditional hops production areas. So the researchers had to start from scratch, this time using virus-free plant material developed through tissue culture.

Even without the virus, Agehara said, the vines weren’t growing the same as they would in the Pacific Northwest, where hops production is a big industry. There the vines grow from May through July with synchronized flowering in late July through August. This allows for a one-time harvest.

Short day length, typically less than 15 hours, is what promotes flowering in hop plants. With Florida being farther south, the maximum day length is less than 14 hours. The vines were much shorter when flowering began, and flowering was spread out over an extended period. Agehara was able to remedy that by installing LED lights.

“With LED lights, we can extend day length. As long as the day length is more than 15 hours, the hops plants don’t initiate flowering, so they keep growing taller and thicker,” he said. “When they have sufficient vines, we can turn off the lights so plants can initiate flowering.”

A multidisciplinary approach

Deng has 14 popular hops varieties in a trial to determine which ones are best suited for the Florida environment. So far, the replanted clean vines are doing much better than the earlier ones.

“I think the LED lights are going to be key to maximizing yields,” he said. “So far this season, they are looking far different from the other seasons. Now I can see if they can produce a good yield.”

Vallad is focusing on potential diseases. He’s already found the fungal diseases caused by Cercospera and Alternaria on the plants and cones and is developing a disease-management strategy. His program also monitors for powdery mildew and downy mildew, which are two of the most problematic diseases in traditional hops production areas.

As for pests, in the early plantings Smith noticed spider mites were causing damage, and he continues to monitor the replanted vines.

“They can really take off once conditions are right,” he said. “It’s still been pretty cool here (in early April), so we haven’t seen an outbreak of mites.”

Smith said the newness of the crop has him keeping his eyes open for other pests.

Desaeger is looking at the potential impact of soil-borne nematodes, particularly the ubiquitous root-knot nematode. Although the hopyard was fumigated before the vines were replanted, he already has found some pockets of the root-feeding pests that have returned.

“Root-knot is the most common in Florida,” he said. “They pretty much feed on any crop we plant.” When nematodes feed on the roots, the plant reacts by forming easily identifiable galls on the root tissue which interfere with proper root function, including water and nutrient uptake. Desaeger will examine the number of galls and the nematode levels in the soil among the cultivars to see if there are differences.

“With hops in Florida, especially a perennial crop that is a good host for root-knot, nematode management will be important,” he said.

A research-industry partnership

Bollin continues to work with local breweries to gather their input. A few have already made batches of beer using the locally grown hops.

“We’re also trying to get information from the (beer) production side so we can find hops that match both of our needs,” Deng said. “After producing hops here, we want to provide hops to them so we can get input if they can make a high-quality beer.”

Although Bollin remains optimistic, he said the jury is still out about the potential for hops in Florida.

“There are thousands and thousands of acres of citrus around the state, and hops are not going to replace them -- nor do I think they should,” he said. “I think hops could offer some Florida growers a potential alternative crop, whether that’s to citrus or to some other crop. Whether you’re growing cows, citrus or strawberries, if you’re going to remain in business you have to be profitable. We haven’t done the cost-benefit ratios on hops yet, but hopefully it will turn out to be a profitable, cost-effective crop to produce and be able to market.”

Andrews offers advice on raising great adults

Humorist, consultant, and author of best-selling “The Noticer” and “The Traveler’s Gift,” Andy Andrews delivered an inspirational message sprinkled with personal anecdotes to attendees at the traditional Cracker Breakfast during FFVA 2017.

Parents shouldn’t worry about raising fine children, he said. Instead, think about how you can guide them to becoming great adults.  "We have a whole lot of disrespectful behaviors in America that will not helpful to a child's future career opportunities," he said. "You have to explain why that's the case, and persuade them to make a change for the better."

"I can't run or sing very well, but I notice little things that make a big difference in the lives of individuals and families," he said.  "Even as a little kid, I remember my mom telling me, 'Be careful or you'll poke your eye out with a stick.' I knew that a stick would poke your eye inward, rather than out, but I didn't argue with her."

In consulting with football teams, Andrews said he's noticed that all coaches urge their players to play as hard as they can from the moment the ball is snapped until the whistle is blown. "But there’s another whole game that no one talks about, and that’s what happens the ball is not in play," he said. "So if you can compete in a totally different way, like from the ref’s whistle to the next snap of the football, you can run your opponent off the field."

In business, Andrews said almost every company competes on the basis of price and product. But when he asked the audience if anyone had ever paid extra for a product they like or patronized a store where they have a relationship with the owner or manager, virtually everyone raised their hands. "That tells us that there's something more important that product or price in business, and that's who you are, including your desires, values and friends."

To parents, Andrews emphasized the importance of teaching children solid principles to guide their actions. "It's a better way for them to live their lives than searching online for an answer to their issues," he said, adding that these seven principles apply to adults as well:

• Taking responsibility. Everyone makes choices in response to the crazy things in life, he said.  “Don't blame others; take control of your life and see if that takes you to a place you like or don't like,” he said. “That's what the game of life is all about.”
• Seeking wisdom.  Noting that wisdom is different from knowledge, Andrews said, "The best question we can ask our kids is simply this:  'Is this a wise thing to do?' "  
• Doing something. Don’t sit on the sofa hoping for something to change. Instead, take action and make something happen in your life. 
• Having a decided heart. Rather than over-analyzing your choices and second-guessing your decisions, make your choices and move on.  “You can't always made right decisions every time, but you don't want to analyze everything to death,” he said.
• Choosing to be happy. “You can choose whether to see the glass as half empty or half full,” Andrews said. “So, make a conscious choice to be happy.”
• Forgiving others. Think of this as a life strategy, he said. “Let go of the bad things that have happened to you and move forward.” 
• Persisting without exception. When faced with an obstacle, don’t give up. Instead, keep on going, without excuses, until you come out on the other side.
"I know that everyone in this room suffered in some way from Hurricane Irma," said Andrews. Noting that his Alabama home was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004, he added, "My wife and I lost our house, but not our family. While it's not easy, I encourage you to say ‘thanks’ and embrace the spirit of gratefulness." 

Investment in ELDP brings significant returns

By Travis Kuhn, Spring Valley Farms

There are a lot of things to be learned in a classroom, but there is no substitute for experience. I am thankful to FFVA for the ELDP program and the opportunity to learn from others. Agriculture is a dynamic industry in every way. This program provided amazing insight into how it’s changing around the country and here right outside our doorstep. The program brings to the forefront of every participant’s mind the need to be vigilant and persevere. Learning of the battles people such as Reggie Brown of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange have waged to protect producers in our state and the war that drags on every day in Tallahassee around our rights to responsibly farm is sobering. 

But the program was also encouraging. To see what industry peers have accomplished and built with determination and ingenuity is inspiring. It fans the flames and gives me a target to strive for. That target looks like involvement, entrepreneurship and environmental stewardship. It looks like teamwork and fellowship.

The program encompasses such a wide array of agriculture. It’s hard to envision a way to fit any more into the program than we did. Every producer, legislator, industry representative and even our bus driver offered a surprising amount of honesty. They entrusted us with their knowledge, struggles and triumphs. They listened to our questions and offered solutions and we reciprocated in kind when possible.

I have a strong appreciation for the value FFVA gives to the specialty crop industry. It’s hard to imagine what our industry would look like without a body that unifies us. The staff of FFVA works hard building a commercial atmosphere we can thrive in. Each staff member is passionate about what they do and it shows through their successes as our representatives and counselors. Sonia Tighe’s efforts on this program do not go unnoticed, and we commend her for that. The support of the FFVA membership and corporate sponsors for this program are an investment with significant returns in the future of Florida agriculture. 

Rick Roth's 1st term in Legislature: 'Much more than I expected'

By Mick Lochridge

A respected farmer and business owner in South Florida, Rick Roth has long advocated for issues beneficial to his community and Florida’s agriculture industry. His leadership positions with farming organizations, along with his own successful commercial operations, have provided him with experiences and insight to tackle an even bigger role – in the state Legislature.

Roth, 64, just finished his freshman term in the Florida House of Representatives, where he represented District 85, which includes Palm Beach Gardens, Juno Beach, North Palm Beach, the Acreage and parts of Loxahatchee, Royal Palm Beach and West Palm Beach.

“The decision to run was a natural outgrowth and next step in my career as a business owner, farmer and landowner in Florida,” he said. “I have been involved in politics and farm policy for more than 30 years and have encouraged others to get more involved by setting a good example.”

“In the end,” he added, “the decision to run was answering the call to step up and do more for my country.”

A third-generation farmer, Roth joined his father in the family business in 1976 after graduating from Emory University with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. In 1986 he became the president and principal owner of Roth Farms, a closely held family farm in the Everglades Agricultural Area near Belle Glade. The company, with 20 full-time and 150 seasonal employees, grows radishes, leafy vegetables, rice, sugar cane, sweet corn, green beans and celery.

In 2007 Roth opened a state-of-the-art packinghouse in Belle Glade, naming it Ray’s Heritage after his father. The plant handles radishes, sweet corn, green beans, leafy vegetables and celery.

Active in the agriculture community, he serves on the boards of the Western Palm Beach County Farm Bureau, the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association and the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida. In addition, he is president and founding board member of the Florida Rice Growers Association and serves on the Farmers Feeding Florida Advisory Committee to Feeding Florida.

Married 39 years, Roth and his wife, Jeanie, have lived in Wellington for 38 years and have three adult children and three grandchildren.

FFVA caught up with Roth to ask him about his experience in the Legislature.

FFVA: Was your first term in the Legislature what you expected?

Roth: My first term in office was so much more than I expected. The amount of information and knowledge required to evaluate and vote on hundreds of bills is overwhelming. Fortunately, it is still easier than vegetable farming in Florida. I was impressed with the level of expertise of legislators and staff on every subject imaginable.

FFVA: What were your biggest accomplishments?

Roth: I developed key friendships with members to discuss pending legislation. I introduced two bills (dealing with regulations for hospice services and public records for agriculture research) that were signed into law, and I gained valuable insight into passing future bills. Just as important, I participated on different levels to amend or stop legislation that I had problems with.

FFVA: What do you hope to accomplish during the next session?

Roth: I am a big-picture guy. I am pro-business, pro-jobs and pro-environment. If you are anti-business and pro-environment, please move to Denmark. I am working on several bills under the broad categories of efficient government, public safety and civility.

FFVA: How do you juggle your legislative duties with your farm business?

Roth: In an ideal world, every farmer’s goal is to pass on the family farm to the next generation. I have been blessed with the family and great employees to run the day-to-day operations. God’s timing is perfect. My adult children have their careers, and this step gives them greater opportunities and responsibilities.

FFVA: What qualities did you take from the farm to the Legislature?

Roth: I am a small-town business owner. I am privileged to have grown up, lived and worked in the same community all my life. For years I have said, “I live in Belle Glade. I sleep in Wellington.” I learned early in life that everything works better when you work hard and are honest. Finally, as a business owner, you become adept at solving problems and evaluating the performance of everyone you work with, including yourself.

FFVA: In what ways do your farming experiences make you a better lawmaker?

Roth: In agriculture, you learn quickly that there are certain things that have to be done today. Second, farmers are long-term planners. So you believe in long-term strategic planning to accomplish big goals. You learn patience and understand that waiting is work, too.

FFVA: What have you learned in Tallahassee that you can use in your farming business?

Roth: My main focus as a legislator is to “always tell the truth without making people mad.” That is accomplished in part by the phrase “less is more.” My goal is to keep debates and discussions short and to the point.

FFVA: What issues that affect other farmers have you fought for – and against?

Roth: There were several bills lowering taxes and regulations that help all business owners, which include the constitutional amendments to increase the homestead exemption by $25,000 and cap the non-homestead exemption to a maximum 10 percent annual increase permanently. We were also able to include veterinary medicine and other items in the category of sales tax-exempt agriculture expenses.

California tour gives leadership group new insights

A three-day California production tour opened a window to new crops and production practices for Class 6 of FFVA’s Emerging Leader Development Program. Company presidents and farm managers opened their operations to the group as it traveled across the Salinas Valley June 25-27.

It was the fifth and final session for the class before it graduates at FFVA’s annual convention in September. The class began its year together with an orientation at FFVA’s offices in November. In January they toured South Florida farms and packinghouses, and they visited with legislators in Tallahassee in March.

In California, the class saw some crops for the first time, including apples, mushrooms, artichokes and wine grapes. They also learned, however, that many of the same issues pose challenges in California just as they do in Florida.

The tour gave the class the opportunity to discuss farming challenges in detail with leaders of the California companies. The No. 1 concern raised repeatedly by the hosts was the serious shortage of labor. A close second was over-regulation by the state and federal governments.  And though the California drought may be over, growers cited long-term water quality and quantity concerns. They also discussed the need for innovation to stay efficient and competitive in the marketplace.

In addition to seeing production practices in the fields, the group also toured major several receiving, cooling, packing and shipping operations. Meeting with agriculture leaders in Salinas, they heard about the top issues facing growers in the valley and work by the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California on those issues.

The group also learned about innovations underway in mechanical harvesting and precision agriculture.

“I was amazed at how cutting-edge their farming practices are, specifically in harvesting,” said class member Jeff Searcy of Helena Chemical. “The technological advances they have made in mechanical harvesting clearly show their focus on efficiency, and more importantly food safety.”

A special thanks to Driscoll’s for hosting the ELDP for dinner on the first night of the trip.

Tour stops and hosts were:

Uesugi Farms in Gilroy, Pete Aiello – peppers
DiMare Company in Gilroy, Jeff Dolan – tomatoes
Gizdich Ranch in Watsonville, Vince Gizdich – apples and peaches
Monterey Mushrooms in Watsonville, Matt Fuller – mushrooms
Driscoll’s in Aromas and Watsonville, various hosts – strawberries, raspberries, blackberries
Ocean Mist Farms, Castroville, Mark Reasons and Glenn Alameda – artichokes
Duda in Salinas, Sammy Duda – celery
Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, Jim Bogart; Monterey County Commissioner of Agriculture Eric Lauritzen; Kim Stemler, Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association
Bengard Ranch in Salinas, Bridget Rotticci – broccoli
Taylor Farms in Salinas, Rigo Ramirez – bagged salad processing
Taylor Farms in Salinas, Chris Rotticci – automated lettuce harvesting
D’Arrigo in Salinas, Mark Houle and Daniel DeLorimier – vegetable and strawberry receiving, cooling, shipping
Tanimura & Antle in Salinas, Ashley Pipkin and Nick Sgheiza – lettuce
Ramsay Highlander in Gonzales, Frank Maconachy – mechanical harvesting
Pisoni Vineyards in Soledad, Mark Pisoni – wine grapes

New company gives landowners a link to additional revenue

By Mick Lochridge

John Evans, a member of a longtime Florida farming and real estate family, turned his light bulb of an idea into a money-making venture by connecting property owners with folks looking to lease land for everything from cows to crops to camping.

His company’s website,, provides a space for landowners to post photos and descriptions of property available for lease. For example, a 544-acre farm near Wildwood has four wells and is suitable for growing onions, peanuts and watermelons. In Volusia County, there is a 200-acre cattle ranch with fencing and cow pens. In the coastal bayous of Louisiana, a hunting and fishing lodge offers a haven for both sportsmen and nature lovers.

From his job in agriculture real estate as vice president of Maury L. Carter & Associates in Orlando, Evans was in the perfect position to see the opportunity for creating the new business.

“We get hundreds, if not thousands, of unsolicited phone calls a year on the properties in our portfolio from individuals and companies looking to lease or rent our properties for various reasons,” he said. “I recognized this enormous need and demand for private land use. But I also recognized something else. Landowners of all types are constantly looking for ways to make additional income or generate new revenue streams on their land.”LLX logo

So he created a way for the two parties to connect, launching the website this past spring. The service is available in every state, and there are nearly 40 listings, most in Florida. The cost is $75 a month to list a property; there is no charge to visit the site and search for land. FFVA members can receive a nine-month free trial with discount code FFVALLE17.

“No property is too small or too big,” said Evans, president and CEO of Land Lease Exchange. “Lease all of your land or just a portion.”

One of his clients is Lykes Bros., an agribusiness with land in Florida and Texas.  The company listed three Florida properties on the exchange, two for hunting leases in Glades County and a preserve with a lodge suitable for company retreats and family gatherings in Glades County.

“We have had tremendous interest in both of the hunting lands, and we are in the process of leasing them,” said Mallory Lykes Dimmitt, vice president of strategic development for the company. She added that other lands, including property in west Texas, would be evaluated for including on the exchange.

That fits right in with Evans’ plan.

“We provide something that has never existed, a marketplace where landowners and land users can connect,” Evans said. “It’s a service that has not been available and that is in huge demand by both.”

Most of the initial land posted for leasing centers on traditional farming. Yet Evans said he expected interest to build for recreational and other uses.

“Livestock and production agriculture crops are just the beginning as these sites are in huge demand for leasing across our state and country,” he said. “But there is an enormous segment of our population looking for recreational opportunities too, such as hunting, camping, horseback riding.” Landowners also can post their agri-tourism properties.

Evans, 32, is a 2008 graduate of the University of Mississippi with a degree in real estate finance. A seventh-generation Floridian, he lives in Winter Park with wife Ann and son Jack, 1.

His family’s companies are Nelson & Co. Inc. and Evans Groves, based in Oviedo. His family has been farming since the 1880s in Florida and grows citrus and blueberries.

“My family is in agriculture and real estate. I love both,” he said. “I also love hunting and the outdoors. I wanted a career that would meld all of those things together, which landed me with my current position in the agri-real estate industry. And that led me to”

Alan Chambers impacts Miami

By Jack Payne
Alan Chambers moved to South Florida last year to create only-in-Miami food.

He wants to give you a sweeter papaya with an aroma you can pick up from five feet away. He hopes to eventually offer you a mango with smoother flesh (not the kind with the stringy yellow stuff inside). He’s looking for an avocado that grows consistently so your customers can afford it all the time.

He’d even like to see the return of the Miami lime, a rarity even on the rim of a mojito glass these days.
Chambers came here for the food. He believes that in a place where the climate is so hospitable to tropical fruits, Miamians should enjoy locally grown produce. Here in South Florida, you have the opportunity to eat and grow food that wouldn’t be exactly the same if it were grown in Mexico, California, or even North Florida.

No, C
hambers is not a chef. He’s a scientist. He delves into the molecular recipes of tropical fruits to see if he can find the one that’s best suited to Miami’s soils, precipitation, humidity — and your taste buds.

Chambers works for the University of Florida. In his lab at the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Tropical Research and Education Center in Homestead, he’s paid to “invent” food that keeps local farmers working and consumers enjoying the fruits of that innovation.

His success will mean fresher food that travels fewer miles and keeps more food dollars here.
Chambers has a lot of help. In fact, the research center has experts who have been working on better food for years. Chambers joins the team as part of a new generation of scientists with expertise in modern plant-breeding methods.

He has help at home, too. He might be the only dad whose kids ask for a piece of fruit by its experimental breeding number. The brutal honesty of those six kids makes them great taste testers of food created with traditional cross-breeding methods. They’ll also be some of the first mouths to try future fruits that Chambers and his colleagues will discover much more rapidly by borrowing technologies from medicine.

UF/IFAS is all over the state, but with the support of local legislators it has invested a great deal in scientists, labs and other buildings at the Tropical Research and Education Center in the past two years. Now the center’s researchers can work harder than ever to develop new twists on your old favorites, from guavas to bananas to avocados.

 funding made it possible to bring Chambers and others here to work on local challenges. UF/IFAS has added building space and equipment to give these scientists the tools they need to contribute to the health of Miami’s people and its economy.

The new tools and techniques that Chambers and others use to breed new varieties of fruit enable them to make these contributions sooner.

i is a special place. It deserves special food. Now.

In the past, it might have taken 10 years to develop a new variety of fruit. But with new technologies, Chambers hopes to do it in a year or two – not after his 9-year-old has graduates from high school.

Chambers and UF/IFAS also want his children to be able to buy local as grown-ups. That means helping local farmers survive plant-eating bugs that hitchhike into Miami on ships and planes, more droughts and hurricanes, and the volatility of markets.

A lot of the science to make that happen will come out of the research center in Homestead. The university, the state, and the local farming community will all continue to work together to make sure that science works for you.

We think you’ll enjoy the result every time you feed yourself or your kids.

Jack Payne is the University of Florida’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.


FFVA Chairman profile

By Doug Ohlemeier

FFVA Chairman Paul OrsenigoPaul Orsenigo, Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association’s newest chairman, always wanted to be a farmer.

Though Orsenigo, owner of Belle Glade-based Orsenigo Farms Inc., and co-owner of Growers Management, wasn’t raised in a farming family, he developed a love for growing things at a young age.


His late father, Dr. Joseph Orsenigo, was a plant physiologist and weed scientist at the University of Florida’s Belle Glade experiment station. At eight years of age, the younger Orsenigo grew backyard gardens.

He says he was fortunate to have his avocation his career. “The beauty of farming is that it is a blend of art and science,” Orsenigo said. “Each artist paints what he or she chooses to paint and uses his own creativity and inventiveness. The grower has to have a feel for the condition of the crop.”

Orsenigo’s dream job has grown into a successful operation. Orsenigo Farms grows sugarcane, rice and other various crops while Growers Management grows and packs sweet corn and lettuce such as spring mix and other leaf items.

After graduating from the University of Florida’s College of Agriculture in 1979, Orsenigo worked for several growers in the Everglades Agricultural Area. He first became involved with FFVA during the late 1980s shortly after starting Orsenigo Farms. In 2000, he and David Basore started Growers Management.


For Orsenigo, the strength of FFVA is its membership as well as its staff’s knowledge and leadership. FFVA harvests expertise from its members, which hail from a variety of positions, including company owners, presidents, managers and those from different talent bases.

In 1994, he joined FFVA’s board and was also involved in committees including production and natural resources. In 2014, Orsenigo was elected FFVA vice chairman. “I want to express my gratitude to the membership for electing me to serve,” he said.

The organization continues to evolve to help its members by finding solutions to meet today’s business challenges. Building consensus on the important issues remains vital and FFVA has adapted to remain progressive and responsive to its members’ needs.

“We at FFVA have a systemic approach to get people involved by not just sitting around and listening to lectures, but by giving them an opportunity to provide input and employing their knowledge based on firsthand experiences,” Orsenigo said. “That reinforces our organizational strength.”


Orsenigo and Basore strive to incorporate production advances and keep up with consumer trends. One advancement for Growers Management is growing herbs on plastic with drip irrigation, which provides multiple harvests. The company started the experimental project in 2016 and the two plan to expand it next year.

“It takes an intangible talent to understand the needs of the crop, incorporating technology into that which is helping us grow more consistent crops more economically and producing wholesome and nutritious foods that consumers are looking for,” Orsenigo said.


Encouraging the next generation to work in agriculture is important to Orsenigo. He supports FFVA’s Emerging Leader Development Program, which helps broaden young agriculture professionals’ understanding of the produce industry and prepares them for future FFVA involvement.

Orsenigo’s son, Derek Orsenigo, 30, also graduated from the University of Florida and is Grower’s Management’s sweet corn operations manager. David Basore’s son, Dave Basore, 22, works in leafy vegetable production while pursuing his education.

“Commitment and management by successive generations is critical,” the older Orsenigo said. “As we get older and have children who choose to go into a family business, the choice should be for the right reasons and to help advance and move forward the family business.”

Blackberries spelling year-round success for Wish Farms

In October, FFVA producer member Wish Farms announced it was expanding its year-round offerings of strawberries and blueberries to include blackberries.

How’s it going? Very well, thank you.

The Plant City-based operation founded in 1922 decided to get into the blackberry business at the request of its customers. “Since they buy strawberries and blueberries from us, it was natural for them to ask if we had blackberries and raspberries,” said Jose Saca, director of blackberry and raspberry operations at Wish Farms. “So the company made the decision earlier this year to provide blackberries and raspberries,” he said.

At this time, Wish Farms offers raspberries during the Mexican growing season from October to May, but one of the program’s goals is to offer them year-round as well.

“Blackberries are the perfect complement to our year-round berry program,” said Gary Wishnatzki, owner of Wish Farms. “In just one phone call, customers can now choose to order an assortment of berries.”

The Mexico blackberry season runs from the beginning of October to the end of May. Wish Farms then makes the transition to berries grown in Georgia, North Carolina and California.

“Unfortunately at this time, Florida is not a big blackberry producing state,” Saca said. “Maybe with new varieties coming from the University of Arkansas, that might change. We certainly are going to do some tests with Florida growers who are interested. Of course, we would love to have local production in Florida. At this time, blackberries are produced on only a few small patches for U-pick purposes.”

Saca says customers have accepted the blackberries with enthusiasm, and production and sales are more robust than he and his team had expected. “We’re at a point where customers are going to be demanding more. We’re probably going to sell 15 to 25 percent more than what we thought we could do,” he said.

And Saca said that although heavy rains made the Mexico season a challenge, Wish’s customers have faith in the company’s ability to provide quality product. “It’s been an easy job for me because the company has such a good reputation,” he said. “The customer trusts that we will provide not only quality product, but service as well. That’s very important in the industry. The staff follows through if there are any issues, deliveries are on time – we try to meet the customer’s demands on anything they want. We bend over backward to please our customers.”

Learn more about Wish Farms’ blackberries on the blackberry page of the company’s website.

Producer Profile: Generation Farms – helping generations of families grow stronger

Generation Farms comprises three farms that, working together, strive to be the premier vegetable and fruit supplier for the East Coast. The entity includes third-generation operation Coggins Farms, which began in 1945. Stanley Farms began growing Vidalia onions in 1975, although family patriarch R.T. Stanley began farming as a sharecropper in 1964. A third, Suwanee farms, was founded in 1979 in the Suwannee River Basin and expanded into other areas of Florida and Georgia.

They work to bring “the freshest produce to market faster, and help to promote sustainable farming practices,” said Jamie Brannen, a new member of the FFVA board of directors and general manager of produce for Generation Farms.

Generation Farms grows a wide variety of seasonal and year-round produce. A star in its show is onions. For more than three generations, the Stanley family has run one of the most respected onion-growing and processing operations in the South. Their growers bring a legacy of high-quality processing and operational management to Generation Farms’ crop—not to mention some of the most delicious onions east of the Mississippi River.

The operation is also the largest grower, packer and shipper of carrots on the East Coast, allowing it to accommodate orders of any size or variety. With three generations of carrot-growing expertise, the Coggins family name is synonymous with quality produce throughout the Southeast.

“We begin the year with carrots coming out of the Gainesville area and move to the Madison County area. We also have sweet potatoes and green beans from these same areas,” Brannen said. “We move up a little to around Jennings for onions and blueberries.” The farms also grow kale and watermelons.

Generation Farms boasts the largest organic acreage on the East Coast as well.

Among the operation’s priorities are food safety and sustainability. It is committed to delivering the highest possible food safety standards in every part of its operation. All facilities and farms are audited by third parties against one or more Global Food Safety Initiative schemes. Certification under the GFSI auditing schemes requires the Generation Farms team to be constantly prepared for an inspection.

As far as sustainability, the operation is keenly focused on conserving and protecting precious water resources. “We’re implementing and pursuing a number of innovative water management activities,” said Brannen. “Specifically, we have processes in place to use third-party water and land professionals to assess projects before implementing to make sure we are using best agricultural practices for the environment.

“It’s encouraging to see a company put their money where their mouth is. We hear about both food safety and sustainability all the time from companies all across produce, and a lot of times it’s just marketing. But at Generation Farms we fully utilize our resources to be the best we can be in both areas,” Brannen said.

All that work takes good people at all levels. “I think our greatest challenge is labor. We grow crops that are very hands-on and take a lot of people. Potatoes, onions and berries are all hand-harvested and managing that many people can be very challenging,” Brannen said.

In spite of the challenges of maintaining such high standards, it’s rewarding. Brannen said they are committed to living up to their mission.

“Our mission at Generation Farms is to help generations of families grow stronger through access to quality food,” Brannen said.

Learn more about Generation Farms at

Keynote speaker to kick off celebration of 75 years of service to ag

FFVA is pleased to feature internationally recognized multimedia artist, speaker, author, and innovator Phil Hansen as our Cracker Breakfast keynote speaker at FFVA 2018, set for Sept. 25-27 at The Ritz-Carlton in Naples. This will be an extra special convention because FFVA is celebrating 75 years of service.

Crashing irreverently through conventional boundaries, Hansen works at the intersection of traditional art, electronic media, offbeat materials, and interactive experiences. He is most widely known for his meta-art and videos that document the creation process (sometimes even through destruction), showing that art is action, not just result. Hansen’s work also extends into traditional media with features on the Discovery Channel, “Good Morning America,” “Last Call with Carson Daly,” and many more.

For those who have seen Hansen’s art, it’s hard to imagine that his artistic journey nearly came to an end when a tremor developed in his drawing hand. In exploring new ways to create, he discovered by embracing his shake, his limitations could become the passageway to creativity.

Hansen’s inspirational story was first shared on the TED stage to a standing ovation and then around the world, including on PBS, BBC, and CCTV. His ability to draw parallels to the business setting has won him followers among industry and business leaders, leading to invitations to speak at the TED2013 conference, Adobe MAX Creativity Conference, World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates, and the Million Dollar Round Table.

We promise you’ll enjoy Hansen’s inspirational and unique presentation, as well as all the other sessions during the convention. Register for FFVA or find out more information at

Hops gaining interest as alternative Florida crop

By Vicky Boyd

As the craft beer industry continues to grow with new breweries sprouting up weekly, so does the demand for locally grown hops.

Florida is no exception, with roughly 200 small-scale craft breweries in the state. It was this burgeoning industry that planted the seed in the head of Simon Bollin, agribusiness development manager at the Hillsborough County Economic Department, about trying to develop a Florida-grown hops industry.

“I was talking with my boss about the direction of my program and the craft beer industry came up,” Bollin said. “I went out and started meeting with craft breweries in Hillsborough County. Two issues consistently came up, and one of those was hops. At the time, the price of hops was fairly high, if you could even get hops.”

That led Bollin to meet with researchers at the University of Florida’s Gulf Coast Research and Education Center, who conducted a greenhouse trial with three different varieties to determine whether they would even grow. The success of the project prompted them to apply for two sequential Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services specialty crop research grants to build a hopyard and further test whether hops might be an agronomically viable crop for the state.

Several local craft breweries also have jumped aboard and have offered in-kind or financial support.

Involved in the project are Drs. Zhanao Deng, Shinsuke Agehara, Gary Vallad, Hugh Smith and Johan Desaeger, all of GREC, and Dr. Brian Pearson of the Mid-Florida Research and Extension Center in Apopka.

What are hops?

The seed cone of a plant, hops don’t comprise the largest ingredient in beer by volume by any means. But they are crucial to imparting distinct flavor characteristics to a brew. In the United States alone, more than 50 hops varieties are commercially cultivated, according to the International Hop Growers’ Convention. The plants are vines, growing up to 25 feet each season. Producers in the northern United States train the vines up wire and wooden trellises topping 18 feet. The plants don’t reach peak production until about the fourth year, but they typically continue to yield for more than 10 years. 

Uncharted waters

With most of the hops research conducted in the northern latitudes, the Florida group was entering uncharted waters.

In the third year of their project, the researchers already have had to overcome two hurdles. But Agehara, who is looking at optimum plant spacing and nutrient requirements for the popular Cascade and Chinook varieties, isn’t discouraged.

“When we have to overcome those environmental challenges, sometimes they become opportunities,” he said.

When they planted their first hopyard in 2016, many of the rhizomes they ordered were subsequently found infected with several viruses, which are common to traditional hops production areas. So the researchers had to start from scratch, this time using virus-free plant material developed through tissue culture.

Even without the virus, Agehara said, the vines weren’t growing the same as they would in the Pacific Northwest, where hops production is a big industry. There the vines grow from May through July with synchronized flowering in late July through August. This allows for a one-time harvest.

Short day length, typically less than 15 hours, is what promotes flowering in hop plants. With Florida being farther south, the maximum day length is less than 14 hours. The vines were much shorter when flowering began, and flowering was spread out over an extended period. Agehara was able to remedy that by installing LED lights.

“With LED lights, we can extend day length. As long as the day length is more than 15 hours, the hops plants don’t initiate flowering, so they keep growing taller and thicker,” he said. “When they have sufficient vines, we can turn off the lights so plants can initiate flowering.”

A multidisciplinary approach

Deng has 14 popular hops varieties in a trial to determine which ones are best suited for the Florida environment. So far, the replanted clean vines are doing much better than the earlier ones.

“I think the LED lights are going to be key to maximizing yields,” he said. “So far this season, they are looking far different from the other seasons. Now I can see if they can produce a good yield.”

Vallad is focusing on potential diseases. He’s already found the fungal diseases caused by Cercospera and Alternaria on the plants and cones and is developing a disease-management strategy. His program also monitors for powdery mildew and downy mildew, which are two of the most problematic diseases in traditional hops production areas.

As for pests, in the early plantings Smith noticed spider mites were causing damage, and he continues to monitor the replanted vines.

“They can really take off once conditions are right,” he said. “It’s still been pretty cool here (in early April), so we haven’t seen an outbreak of mites.”

Smith said the newness of the crop has him keeping his eyes open for other pests.

Desaeger is looking at the potential impact of soil-borne nematodes, particularly the ubiquitous root-knot nematode. Although the hopyard was fumigated before the vines were replanted, he already has found some pockets of the root-feeding pests that have returned.

“Root-knot is the most common in Florida,” he said. “They pretty much feed on any crop we plant.”

When nematodes feed on the roots, the plant reacts by forming easily identifiable galls on the root tissue which interfere with proper root function, including water and nutrient uptake. Desaeger will examine the number of galls and the nematode levels in the soil among the cultivars to see if there are differences.

“With hops in Florida, especially a perennial crop that is a good host for root-knot, nematode management will be important,” he said. 

A research-industry partnership

Bollin continues to work with local breweries to gather their input. A few have already made batches of beer using the locally grown hops.

“We’re also trying to get information from the (beer) production side so we can find hops that match both of our needs,” Deng said. “After producing hops here, we want to provide hops to them so we can get input if they can make a high-quality beer.”

Although Bollin remains optimistic, he said the jury is still out about the potential for hops in Florida.

“There are thousands and thousands of acres of citrus around the state, and hops are not going to replace them -- nor do I think they should,” he said. “I think hops could offer some Florida growers a potential alternative crop, whether that’s to citrus or to some other crop. Whether you’re growing cows, citrus or strawberries, if you’re going to remain in business you have to be profitable. We haven’t done the cost-benefit ratios on hops yet, but hopefully it will turn out to be a profitable, cost-effective crop to produce and be able to market.” 
st as alternative Florida crop

By Vicky Boyd

As the craft beer industry continues to grow with new breweries sprouting up weekly, so does the demand for locally grown hops.

Florida is no exception, with roughly 200 small-scale craft breweries in the state. It was this burgeoning industry that planted the seed in the head of Simon Bollin, agribusiness development manager at the Hillsborough County Economic Department, about trying to develop a Florida-grown hops industry.

“I was talking with my boss about the direction of my program and the craft beer industry came up,” Bollin said. “I went out and started meeting with craft breweries in Hillsborough County. Two issues consistently came up, and one of those was hops. At the time, the price of hops was fairly high, if you could even get hops.”

That led Bollin to meet with researchers at the University of Florida’s Gulf Coast Research and Education Center, who conducted a greenhouse trial with three different varieties to determine whether they would even grow. The success of the project prompted them to apply for two sequential Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services specialty crop research grants to build a hopyard and further test whether hops might be an agronomically viable crop for the state.

Several local craft breweries also have jumped aboard and have offered in-kind or financial support.

Involved in the project are Drs. Zhanao Deng, Shinsuke Agehara, Gary Vallad, Hugh Smith and Johan Desaeger, all of GREC, and Dr. Brian Pearson of the Mid-Florida Research and Extension Center in Apopka.

What are hops?

The seed cone of a plant, hops don’t comprise the largest ingredient in beer by volume by any means. But they are crucial to imparting distinct flavor characteristics to a brew. In the United States alone, more than 50 hops varieties are commercially cultivated, according to the International Hop Growers’ Convention. The plants are vines, growing up to 25 feet each season. Producers in the northern United States train the vines up wire and wooden trellises topping 18 feet. The plants don’t reach peak production until about the fourth year, but they typically continue to yield for more than 10 years. 

Uncharted waters

With most of the hops research conducted in the northern latitudes, the Florida group was entering uncharted waters.

In the third year of their project, the researchers already have had to overcome two hurdles. But Agehara, who is looking at optimum plant spacing and nutrient requirements for the popular Cascade and Chinook varieties, isn’t discouraged.

“When we have to overcome those environmental challenges, sometimes they become opportunities,” he said.

When they planted their first hopyard in 2016, many of the rhizomes they ordered were subsequently found infected with several viruses, which are common to traditional hops production areas. So the researchers had to start from scratch, this time using virus-free plant material developed through tissue culture.

Even without the virus, Agehara said, the vines weren’t growing the same as they would in the Pacific Northwest, where hops production is a big industry. There the vines grow from May through July with synchronized flowering in late July through August. This allows for a one-time harvest.

Short day length, typically less than 15 hours, is what promotes flowering in hop plants. With Florida being farther south, the maximum day length is less than 14 hours. The vines were much shorter when flowering began, and flowering was spread out over an extended period. Agehara was able to remedy that by installing LED lights.

“With LED lights, we can extend day length. As long as the day length is more than 15 hours, the hops plants don’t initiate flowering, so they keep growing taller and thicker,” he said. “When they have sufficient vines, we can turn off the lights so plants can initiate flowering.”

A multidisciplinary approach

Deng has 14 popular hops varieties in a trial to determine which ones are best suited for the Florida environment. So far, the replanted clean vines are doing much better than the earlier ones.

“I think the LED lights are going to be key to maximizing yields,” he said. “So far this season, they are looking far different from the other seasons. Now I can see if they can produce a good yield.”

Vallad is focusing on potential diseases. He’s already found the fungal diseases caused by Cercospera and Alternaria on the plants and cones and is developing a disease-management strategy. His program also monitors for powdery mildew and downy mildew, which are two of the most problematic diseases in traditional hops production areas.

As for pests, in the early plantings Smith noticed spider mites were causing damage, and he continues to monitor the replanted vines.

“They can really take off once conditions are right,” he said. “It’s still been pretty cool here (in early April), so we haven’t seen an outbreak of mites.”

Smith said the newness of the crop has him keeping his eyes open for other pests.

Desaeger is looking at the potential impact of soil-borne nematodes, particularly the ubiquitous root-knot nematode. Although the hopyard was fumigated before the vines were replanted, he already has found some pockets of the root-feeding pests that have returned.

“Root-knot is the most common in Florida,” he said. “They pretty much feed on any crop we plant.”

When nematodes feed on the roots, the plant reacts by forming easily identifiable galls on the root tissue which interfere with proper root function, including water and nutrient uptake. Desaeger will examine the number of galls and the nematode levels in the soil among the cultivars to see if there are differences.

“With hops in Florida, especially a perennial crop that is a good host for root-knot, nematode management will be important,” he said. 

A research-industry partnership

Bollin continues to work with local breweries to gather their input. A few have already made batches of beer using the locally grown hops.

“We’re also trying to get information from the (beer) production side so we can find hops that match both of our needs,” Deng said. “After producing hops here, we want to provide hops to them so we can get input if they can make a high-quality beer.”

Although Bollin remains optimistic, he said the jury is still out about the potential for hops in Florida.

“There are thousands and thousands of acres of citrus around the state, and hops are not going to replace them -- nor do I think they should,” he said. “I think hops could offer some Florida growers a potential alternative crop, whether that’s to citrus or to some other crop. Whether you’re growing cows, citrus or strawberries, if you’re going to remain in business you have to be profitable. We haven’t done the cost-benefit ratios on hops yet, but hopefully it will turn out to be a profitable, cost-effective crop to produce and be able to market.” 

Spread the word with fun fruit, veggie facts

FFVA is serving up a new batch of veggie tray-inspired infographics designed to help you educate your friends, neighbors, customers and others about the impact and nutrition of specialty crops in a fun, consumer-friendly way. 

The four infographics highlight interesting facts and figures to encourage awareness and consumption of some of Florida’s top-grown produce: oranges, strawberries, tomatoes and sweet corn. Who knows – they may even help you at Trivia Night some weekend. 

For example, did you know that on average there are 200 tiny seeds on a strawberry? Or that the average ear of corn has 800 kernels arranged in 16 rows? The graphics are made to be widely shared on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and whatever other channels you use. 

We’re using the hashtags #AgFacts #VeggieTray.   You can find all four of the infographics for viewing and downloading at Help us spread the word about how healthy Florida fruits and vegetables are for consumers’ health and the economic well-being of our state.

This is the second group of infographics FFVA has designed to spread the word about the importance of Florida-grown produce. Our first series highlighted Florida’s top crops and detailed the economic impact of specialty crops in creating revenue and jobs. 

Engage consumers through emotions to win their trust

If you think giving consumers the facts is enough to overcome their misconceptions about food, you’d better take a fresh approach.  Listen to their concerns without judgment, ask questions to invite a dialogue, and connect with them on an emotional level to win their trust. 

That was the advice of J.J. Jones of The Center for Food Integrity, who spoke during FFVA's 2017 Convention Issues Forum, "They just don't understand: Consumer angst about food and what you can do about it."  

"Don't abandon science and facts, but share your perspective and values first," he said.

Fortunately, many consumers are deeply interested in food and want to feel a sense of connection to the farmers, ranchers and processors who put fruits, vegetables fish, meats and dairy products on their tables, he said.

Jones emphasized the importance of “leading with emotion” when discussing issues that are important to today’s consumers, including food safety, the social impact of agriculture, and a desire for transparency for the entire food system.

“In an age of social media, none of us can fly under the radar anymore,” he said. “Consumers feel that if they can’t get information they want, you either don’t have a good story to tell, or you’re trying to hide something.”

Jones outlined the findings of the center’s recent survey of 2,000 U.S. consumers that found seven drivers of trust-building transparency: 

• Motivation. Is it solely for profit, or do you want to supply safe and healthy foods?
• Disclosures.  Do you disclose bad news and steps you are taking to correct those issues?
• Stakeholder participation. Can consumers email, call or ask questions on your website?
• Relevance. Is the information you provide relevant to different consumers, such as an individual adult, a family with young children or a senior?
• Clarity. Do you need to have a science background to understand your information?
• Credibility. What is your track record in responding to issues?
• Accuracy. Is your information correct or is there a bias of some sort?

“It’s never too early to put the wheels in motion to increase transparency with consumers,” Jones said. “Then, if something happens, you will already have the processes and procedures in place.”

Jones also pointed to the center’s "digital ethnography" research, which involves mining social media data to identify different consumer types.  For example, “peak performers” who look at food as a means of self-improvement constitute about 17 percent of the population, but have a much larger presence in social media. “They look for the latest knowledge because they want to look good and feel good. Because of their interest in food, they are highly influential with other consumers.”  

In contrast, “providers” make up about 32 percent of the population, but the demands of raising a family or caring for an adult mean they don’t have as much time to pay attention to food. As a result, they look to others, like the peak performers, for cues.

“This type of research gives us a better understanding of how to connect with influential leaders who will share our messages with others,” Jones said. “So, don’t be afraid to talk about your business, your goals and what you do every day.  After all, your values and culture are more closely aligned with consumers than the skeptics would have you believe.”

Is pongamia the next big replacement crop for citrus? 

By Vicki Boyd

A tree native to India that produces oil-laden pods holds promise as an alternative crop for Florida growers who have lost groves to citrus greening disease. 

Fourth-generation citrus producer and FFVA member Peter McClure has been studying Pongamia pinnata for about 10 years and is bullish on its potential to part of be a new economically viable vegetable oil and protein industry in the Sunshine State. 

“Being in citrus where we have fought hard for 10 years, and we’re fighting a losing battle where we’re having to lay off people, I see a crop that will provide jobs for those same people,” said McClure, who at one time managed 12,000 acres of prime Indian River citrus and served on the Florida Citrus Production Research Advisory Council. “That’s a big deal. The economics of the interior counties in Florida that were dependent on citrus just dried up. These are good people. Being able to put them back to work is a good thing.”

McClure has joined TerViva, a California-based startup working to commercialize renewable energy and local food production, as its chief agriculture officer. TerViva has already established pilot pongamia groves in 12 locations in Florida.
TerViva also recently put in a pilot 30-acre planting on former Maui sugar cane ground and a 50-acre planting on the north shore of Oahu, said Tom Schenk, business development manager. The goal in Hawaii is to replace imported fuels with locally produced biodiesel and jet fuel.

Native to India, pongamia trees are members of the legume family and grow naturally from eastern Africa to northern Australia. The hardy trees produce nuts or pods with up to 40 percent high-quality oil content. In India, the oil is used for an array of products ranging from renewable fuels to cosmetics and paints. The oil also has bio-insecticidal properties similar to neem oil. TerViva has started the testing and regulatory work necessary to access those markets.

Drop-in replacement for citrus

McClure happened upon the potential for pongamia while conducting 300 acres of trials with 40 different alternative crops beginning about 10 years ago. At the time, he worked for a large citrus company whose leadership saw citrus greening as a major threat. The trial included everything from corn, cotton, soybeans and sugar beets to castor, chia and jatropha.

Citrus thrives in poor soils, whether it’s the sands of the ridge that runs through the center of Florida or flatwoods along both shores that have high water. Few other crops do well in those environs.

Much to McClure’s delight, pongamia excels in the same soils as citrus. In fact, one pongamia trial near Fort Pierce successfully survived standing water for two weeks after Hurricane Irma inundated the area, he said.

Using existing irrigation systems and citrus tree spacing practice of 100 to 140 trees per acre, McClure said pongamia is a true drop-in replacement for citrus groves lost to greening or other natural causes.

Initially, McClure experimented with pongamia seedlings. But the wild genetic background produced trees that were too variable. That’s where TerViva’s extensive collection of elite plant materials came in. They are still genetically diverse but with proven yield characteristics.

Much like citrus, he said, vegetative propagation will be the preferred approach because it produces high yields and quality. TerViva’s elite cultivars will be grafted onto seedlings. TerViva has a nursery operation and is contracting with several Florida nurseries to grow trees, which will sell for about $10 each. Tree sales will be handled through TerViva.

Because it’s a legume, pongamia has beneficial bacteria on its roots that form nodules and produce a portion of the tree’s seasonal nitrogen needs. Compared to citrus, pongamia trees will require much less nitrogen, if any, although they do require other nutrients to reach optimum yield. In the nursery, the trees are inoculated with beneficial Rhizobia bacteria, much like soybean growers inoculate soybean seed.

Because the trees have a broad genetic background, they are “jungle tough” and have few known pests, McClure said. Herbicides and mowing for orchard floor management will be two of the biggest inputs during the first three to four years after planting, he said. Growers must prune young trees to form a single trunk clear of branches from three feet down to allow harvesting with mechanical shakers. 
Trees come into production about the fourth year, ramping up until they peak at about year eight.

Pongamia are semi-deciduous, losing leaves in April and May during Florida’s dry season. The trees bloom in May and June when seasonal rains begin. Although one pongamia grove in Florida has never been irrigated and is doing well, Schenk said the trees grow better with supplemental water. The test plantings are three to five years old and have not received insecticide or fungicide applications. The tremendous genetic variation of TerViva’s elite cultivars should provide protection against a greening-like event hitting pongamia, McClure said.

Borrowing pistachio shakers

McClure has been working with Orchard Machinery Corp. of Ceres, CA, about using its Shockwave Catchall pistachio shakers to harvest pongamia. 

A set of machines, each with a deflector, surrounds the tree while a clamp shakes the trunk, loosening pods that fall onto the deflectors. A conveyor at the bottom then moves the pods into a bin or adjacent trailer.

Using pistachio shakers in Florida in May and June for pongamia makes the most of equipment that typically sits idle for about 10 months of the year, he said. The pongamia season complements the California pistachio season, which runs from late August through early fall.

As part of the trials, TerViva established a pilot oil press in an old Vero Beach citrus packing plant. Using a low-tech press calibrated for soybeans, they are processing pongamia nuts into oil and seedcake. 
“We just fed pongamia beans through it and it worked beautifully,” McClure said.
The nuts typically yield about 40 percent oil as well as a 36 percent protein seedcake. On a per-acre basis, pongamia yields about 400 gallons compared to 40 gallons for soybeans. Only palm oil outyields pongamia on a per-acre basis, he said.

Several petroleum companies already have tested pongamia oil and found its composition suitable for biofuel and bio jet fuel, Schenk said. With a 36 percent protein content, the seedcake also has several markets, including use as an organic fertilizer or as livestock feed.

Market potential 

Once in full production, a grove can gross about $2,000 per acre annually, with net returns of about $1,000 per acre, McClure said. Ultimately, he sees potential for about 100,000 to 200,000 acres of pongamia in Florida.

“We had 800,000 acres of citrus when greening came in,” McClure said. “You can’t grow 800,000 acres of blueberries, peaches or pomegranates because the market isn’t big enough. With pongamia’s biological fit in Florida and the existing huge markets available for oil and protein, you can scale up and grow 100,000 to 200,000 acres or more without breaking the market.”

Navigating uncertainty: The labor outlook

Florida growers could face a serious labor shortage in the next few years, especially if federal agencies ramp up immigration enforcement. "But we have an opportunity for improving things within the Trump administration and in Congress, as we try to navigate the many obstacles facing our industry," said Craig Regelbrugge, senior vice president, AmericanHort, co-chair of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, and chair of the National Council of Agricultural Employers' Immigration Committee.  

During FFVA’s 2017 Convention Issues Forum, "Navigating Uncertainty: The Ag Labor Outlook," Regelbrugge focused on policy, regulatory and legislative steps that could help fruit and vegetable producers address their workforce challenges.  He noted that about 75 percent of the 2 million to 2.5 million farmworkers in the U.S. are foreign-born, and one-third are U.S. citizens. 

A national 2013 survey found that the average age of these workers was around 40, and many are married and raising children.  Only 2 percent said they were recent arrivals, compared with 22 percent in the late 1990s. 

"Agriculture today needs to stabilize the current workforce and provide a process to ensure a future flow," Regelbrugge said. "We also need an efficient hiring process with integrity."

Regelbrugge noted that use of the H-2A temporary worker visa program is rising, especially in Florida, which is now the number one H-2A employer in the country. "While there has been a lot of rhetoric about American workers being displaced by immigrants, that is not happening in agriculture," he said. "However, there is clearly lack of a policy consensus."

Within the Trump administration, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue understands the issues, while senior policy advisor Stephen Miller is a fierce opponent of immigration, said Regelbrugge, adding that Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta's leadership will be critical in helping to solve the industry's workforce needs.

In Congress, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) introduced an agricultural labor reform bill that would replace the H-2A with a new H-2C visa with many similar provisions. However, it imposes a cap on total visas and includes minimum wage requirements.  "Talk to your elected officials and bring them up to speed on these issues," said Regelbrugge.

In the Senate, Thom Tillis (R-NC) and Diane Feinstein (D-CA) can work together as an H-2A team, according to Regelbrugge. Both understand the importance of this labor issue to agriculture, he added. 

"While we are armed with facts and figures, our opponents are fighting a culture war," Regelbrugge said. "We have a public relations challenge, as most Americans are several generations away from actually working on a farm. We all need to be ambassadors for agriculture in our communities."

New tax law may grow on the agriculture industry

This article was prepared for FFVA members by Carl Stroh Jr. of Withum.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed by Congress and signed into law in December will affect Florida’s specialty crop producers in a number of ways.

Included in the new law was a provision for citrus growers that provides a special temporary exception to the UNICAP (uniform capitalization) rules for certain costs of replanting citrus plants lost by casualty. The result is that a 100 percent deduction will be allowed for replacing damaged trees in the first year, rather than having to depreciate the cost over 14 years.

The code generally requires the producer to own the plants when the damage occurred and to replace them with the same type of crop on property located in the United States. Further, replanting costs for this purpose generally include the replanting, cultivating, maintaining and developing of the plants that were lost or damaged, but not the acquisition costs of replacement trees or seedlings (which must still be capitalized).

In addition to this relief for citrus growers, Patricia Wolfe, the American Farm Bureau’s senior director of congressional relations, is quoted as saying, “[a]bout 94 percent of all farms and ranches are organized as pass-through businesses…[t]hat, along with lower rates, should produce a tax reduction for most farmers and ranchers.”

Below are brief highlights of the tax reform mechanisms that may impact and benefit the agriculture industry.

Individual income tax rates

The majority of farmers and growers operate via pass-through entities, and as such, income from farming is typically subject to federal individual income tax rates. The new tax law imposes a new tax rate structure with seven tax brackets: 10 percent, 12 percent, 22 percent, 24 percent, 32 percent, 35 percent and 37 percent. The top rate was reduced from 39.6 percent to 37 percent and applies to taxable income above $500,000 for single taxpayers and $600,000 for married couples filing jointly.

The federal corporate tax rate will be reduced from 35 percent to 21 percent for certain agricultural entities operating or taxed as a C corporation.

Accounting methods

Under the previous tax code, farm corporations and farm partnerships with a corporate partner could only use the cash method of accounting if their gross receipts did not exceed $1 million in any year. An exception allowed certain family farm corporations to qualify if the corporation's gross receipts did not exceed $25 million.

For tax years beginning after Dec. 31, 2017, the cash method may be used by farmers and growers who satisfy a $25 million gross receipts test, regardless of whether the purchase, production or sale of merchandise is an income-producing factor. Under the gross receipts test, taxpayers with annual average gross receipts that do not exceed $25 million for the three prior tax years are allowed to use the cash method.

This is important because farmers and growers have huge input costs, but factors such as weather, markets and plant disease can cause their incomes to vary greatly from year to year. Cash accounting can help farmers and growers match income with expenses over the course of yearly swings.

Bonus depreciation

Under the previous version of the tax code, taxpayers were generally allowed to deduct 50 percent of the cost of most new tangible property in the year during which an asset was placed in service.

For property acquired and placed in service after Sept. 27, 2017, the new tax law has raised the 50 percent rate to 100 percent. Moreover, property eligible for bonus depreciation can be new or used.

So farmers are able to write off 100 percent of “qualified property” purchased after Sept. 27, 2017, through 2022 (at which point the expensing rate begins to be phased down). However, it is important to note that many states do not conform to the federal bonus and Section 179 depreciation provisions (i.e. the state deduction may incorporate depreciation of assets over their normal recovery lives and methods).

Code Section 179 expensing

Under the prior tax code, most smaller taxpayers could elect, on an asset-by-asset basis, to immediately deduct the entire cost of Section 179 property up to an annual limit of $500,000 (adjusted for inflation).

Under the new law, the annual maximum amount a taxpayer may expense is increased to $1 million (adjusted for inflation in tax years after 2018). The annual limitation amount is reduced by one dollar for every dollar that the cost of all Section 179 property placed in service by the taxpayer during the tax year exceeds $2.5 million (adjusted for inflation tax years after 2018).

As such, farmers will be allowed to immediately write off capital purchases, which can include breeding livestock, farm equipment and single-purpose structures (up to the annual limitation amount).

Farm property

For items placed in service after 2017, the new tax law shortens the depreciation period for any farming equipment or machinery (other than any grain bin, cotton ginning asset, fence or other land improvement) from seven years to five years.

Additionally, many types of farm property will be depreciated under the 200 percent (instead of 150 percent) declining balance method. More specifically, farming property is depreciated under the 200 percent declining balance method, except for:

(1) Buildings and trees or vines bearing fruits or nuts (to which the straight-line method applies)
(2) Property for which the taxpayer elects either the straight-line method or 150 percent declining balance method
(3) Other exceptions defined under the IRS code.

Land improvements other than buildings are 15-year property; fences and grain bins have a seven-year recovery period, and single-purpose agricultural or horticultural structures (greenhouses, specialized housing for livestock) have a 10-year recovery period.

Pass-through deduction

Starting in 2018, taxpayers are allowed a deduction equal to 20 percent of “qualified business income,” which includes income from partnerships, S corporations, LLCs and sole proprietorships. The income must be from a trade or business within the United States. Investment income does not qualify; nor do amounts received from an S corporation as reasonable compensation or from a partnership as a guaranteed payment for services provided to the trade or business. The deduction is not used in computing adjusted gross income, just taxable income.

For taxpayers with taxable income above a certain threshold ($157,500 for single filers and $315,000 for joint filers):

(1) A limitation based on W-2 wages paid by the business and depreciable tangible property used in the business is phased in
(2) Income from specified service businesses is phased out from being classified as qualified business income (businesses in the fields of health, law, consulting, athletics, financial or brokerage services, or where the principal asset is the reputation or skill of one or more employees or owners).

The new provision allows farmers to deduct up to 20 percent of their total sales to cooperatives, which can result in some farmers reducing their taxable income to zero. It is a more generous version of the above mentioned deduction that owners of pass-through businesses get. Conversely, farmers get a smaller deduction, 20 percent of gross income, if they sell grain or other farm products to privately held or investor-owned companies.

Example: Company A, a wheat farmer, has $500,000 in annual grain sales and $80,000 in profit. If the farmer sells grain to a cooperative, he or she could deduct 20 percent of sales, effectively eliminating the entire income tax liability. Alternatively, if the farmer sells grain to an independent grain operator, the farmer’s deduction would be limited to 20 percent of the profit ($16,000), resulting in taxable income of $64,000.

Farm cooperatives are organizations owned by groups of farmers and ranchers who market their crops. 

A “specified agricultural or horticultural cooperative” means an organization that is engaged in:

(a) The manufacturing, production, growth or extraction in whole or significant part of any agricultural or horticultural product
(b) The marketing of agricultural or horticultural products which its patrons have so manufactured, produced, grown, or extracted, or
(c) The provision of supplies, equipment or services to farmers or to organizations.

30% interest limitation

The new tax law replaces earnings-stripping rules with a limitation on the deduction of business interest. Under this limitation, the deduction allowed for business interest for any tax year cannot exceed the sum of:

(1) The taxpayer's business interest income for the tax year; 
(2) 30 percent of the taxpayer's adjusted taxable income for the tax year; plus
(3) The taxpayer's floor plan financing interest for the tax year.

The business interest limitation does not apply to a taxpayer that meets the $25 million gross receipts test (average annual gross receipts for the three-tax-year period ending with the prior tax year do not exceed $25 million).

Thus, farmers and growers will be limited on deducting interest expenses when their taxable income exceeds $25 million.

A farming business can elect out of the definition of “trade or business” for purposes of applying the interest imitation (thus, the limitation would not apply). However, a slower depreciation method would then have to be used on certain farm property with recovery periods of 10 years or more.

Like-kind exchanges

For federal purposes, citrus trees and other crops are considered Code Section 1245 property, so there are issues in doing like-kind exchanges. Under state law, they are considered real property.
Like-kind exchanges remain a planning opportunity with respect to real property, but if you have agricultural crops or citrus trees on such property, you need to discuss with your tax advisor.

Legislature opens amid turmoil

By Butch Calhoun

The 2018 legislative session kicked off Tuesday under the cloud of yet another sexual scandal.  Shortly before Gov. Rick Scott delivered his last “State of the State” address to a joint meeting of the House of Representatives and the Senate, an anonymous website appeared claiming to show secretly taped videos supporting allegations of nightly rendezvous between Sen. Anitere Flores (R-Miami) and Sen. Oscar Braynon II (D-Miami Gardens).  

Shortly afterward, the legislators issued a statement acknowledging a relationship they regret and asked for forgiveness and privacy.  This was the latest lascivious development in the string of sexual scandals at the Capitol which has already caused two senators to resign and most likely made several more legislators very nervous.  This midnight caucusing almost overshadowed all of the pomp and ceremony of the opening day of the session.  

In his final “State of the State” address, Scott discussed the jobs created under his watch and stated that Florida must make sure it remains the “global destination for jobs.”

He talked about how taxes have been reduced during his tenure and said he wants voters to approve a constitutional amendment this year that would make it harder for the Legislature to raise taxes in the future.  He said this would force politicians to “live within their means.”

He talked about issues relating to Hurricane Irma and said that he thinks Florida has come back “even stronger.”
The governor addressed sexual harassment issues, saying he had signed an executive order dealing with the training of state employees and reporting and investigating sexual harassment complaints. He also encouraged the Legislature to pass sexual harassment legislation.

Scott emphasized the need to invest in the environment, education and transportation infrastructure.  He concluded by saying, “We have a finite amount of time left in these positions.  Let’s all fight together until our last minute in office to secure Florida’s future for each and every family."

In additional to everything happening in the Legislature, the Constitutional Revision Commission continues to meet and vote on 103 proposed revisions to the Florida Constitution.  On Jan. 12, the CRC Judicial Committee unanimously voted down Proposal 23, which would have created rights to a “clean and healthful environment."  This proposal would have also created a new cause of action and given anyone the right to sue to enforce these rights.

Given all of the opening day speeches, political promises and sexual scandals, we must remain focused on our priorities as FFVA continues to advocate for you.

FFVA members can see which bills FFVA is monitoring, which ones it supports and which ones it opposes by viewing our latest Capitol Voice bulletin.

Managing laurel wilt disease in Florida

Although laurel wilt disease continues to fell avocado trees and their wild relatives in the Southeast, a number of Florida growers who have adopted aggressive management programs have reduced avocado tree mortality.

The programs, which involve frequent scouting for diseased trees, removing and grinding them as soon as they’re found, and treating adjacent healthy trees with antibiotics, is admittedly a stop-gap measure, say University of Florida researchers. 

“We’ve found that the best way is to make sure groves are as fit as possible,” said Mary Oslund, director of marketing for Homestead, Florida-based Brooks Tropicals. “But it’s a big challenge and a challenge that definitely right now we have no answer for. It’s an on-going challenge that we have to face.”

For the state’s avocado industry to survive and flourish in the long run, Drs. Jonathan Crane and Randy Ploetz agreed that breeding resistant varieties would provide the most sustainable outcome.

The two are part of a multi-discipline group of researchers at UF’s Tropical Research and Education Center in Homestead studying the laurel wilt-ambrosia beetle complex. The work is being funded in part by a $3.45 million U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant.

Hurricane Irma throws a curve ball

Unfortunately, only a handful of growers have embraced the aggressive disease-management program, said Crane, a UF Institute of Food and Agriculture Extension professor of horticulture and tropical fruit specialist. 

Others have given up because the disease has gotten out of hand and they can’t afford control measures.

“It’s a very, very fluid situation, and of course Hurricane Irma has complicated everything,” he said. Irma toppled 30 to 40 percent of the state’s avocado trees. Historically, growers would heavily prune the trees, stand them back up and they’d regrow in a couple years.

But Crane said the storm damage also gives growers an opportunity to top work the trees to more profitable varieties or remove the grove entirely and replant with different avocado varieties. He said he should know better what options growers pursued by the 2018 summer.

Going back into avocados isn’t as risky as it sounds, either, because of ambrosia beetle habits researchers have learned about during orchard trapping.
It seems the pests, which spread laurel wilt, prefer large canopied, shady orchards where they can easily fly between trees. Ambrosia beetles also prefer mature trees with large diameter trunks compared to the 3-inch trunks of young trees. 

 “Most of the groves with between 25- and 40-year-old trees are perfect habitat for these beetles to move freely about,” Crane said. “We’ve noticed through trapping information that these beetles are less active in groves that have been top worked or in replanted areas because of more sunlight.”

The laurel wilt disease itself also can spread from tree to tree through root grafting, where large roots of old trees fuse together and share bark, phloem, cambium and xylem. 

An unwelcome intruder

The redbay ambrosia beetle – native to India, Japan, Myanmar and Taiwan – was first detected in 2002 in southeast Georgia and presumably hitchhiked into the country on wood crates and pallets.

Since the beetle was first discovered in South Florida in 2010, laurel wilt has killed about 28,000 avocado trees. “That’s a lot of trees, but 4 percent (of overall production) puts it into perspective,” Crane said.

The beetle itself is not the main concern among avocado growers – it is the laurel wilt fungus the beetle transmits that causes more worries. Although the redbay ambrosia beetle was first implicated in spreading the laurel wilt disease, researchers have since identified at least nine other native ambrosia beetles capable of carrying the pathogen. The redbay ambrosia beetle is unique in a lot of ways, adding to management challenges. Unlike other most native ambrosia beetles that colonize dead and dying trees, the redbay ambrosia beetle also seeks out healthy trees. 

Bark beetles typically colonize tree phloem, the vascular tissue responsible for transporting sugars created through photosynthesis and other nutrients to flowers and roots. But ambrosia beetles have evolved to colonize the xylem – plant tissue that carries water and nutrients from the roots upward through the trunk and branches.

The laurel wilt fungus, Raffaelea lauricola, and the redbay ambrosia beetle also have a symbiotic relationship – each organism relies on the other. Adult females, about 0.07 inches long, bore into the wood just below the bark and construct galleries, or tunnels. At the same time, they act as kind of fungal farmers, inoculating the galleries with laurel wilt spores. It is the fungus, and not the wood, on which adult beetles and larvae feed.

As the fungus grows in the galleries and adjacent sapwood, it prompts defensive reactions within the trees that disrupt water and nutrient flows. Visible wilt symptoms appear within a few weeks of infection. 
Most of the redbay ambrosia beetle’s life cycle, including mating, egg laying and larval development, is completed within the galleries. As a result, the beetles are protected from most insecticides.
The dying tree also attracts a host of other ambrosia beetles, which will colonize it, further spreading the laurel wilt fungus. 

In addition to avocados, laurel is lethal to many other members of the laurel family, including redbay and sassafras. In fact, UF research has found that laurel wilt has killed about 320 million redbay trees alone – or 30 percent of the species’ population – since its introduction in 2002. The disease has spread throughout Florida, north through Virginia and west into Texas.

Remove infected trees ASAP

Because the pathogen spreads quickly within infected trees, Crane said trying to prune ahead of the infection usually is ineffective. Instead, he and Ploetz recommend frequent scouting and removing and chipping the tree, including the roots, as soon as wilt symptoms are visible.
“These guys want to save as many trees as possible, and they tend to look at trees and wait,” said Ploetz , a professor of plant pathology. “But that can be disastrous with this disease. We’re having a tough time convincing most growers to really take this seriously. “There are some growers who have taken our recommendations seriously and that’s to remove trees as soon as you see the first symptom. It’s so, so important. If you wait and let that tree become systemically infected, the disease will move very rapidly. Vascular wilt diseases are so, so difficult to manage.”

At the same time as tree removal, they recommend treating surrounding trees with antibiotics to prevent infection. Because of the way the antibiotics work, they are preventive and can’t cure an already infected tree.

Ploetz spent time during the early years of laurel wilt testing fungicides and found triazoles to be effective. Currently, propiconazole, sold under the brand name Tilt, is available under a Section 18 emergency use permit. Tebuconazole, which worked better in trials, is a bit further behind in registration and is not yet approved for use. The challenge with fungicides is getting enough volume into the tree to be effective, Crane and Ploetz said.

Some growers also have found that the beneficial fungi, Beauveria bassiana and marketed as BotaniGard, applied at and after tree removal helps control beetles dispersed during the process. The goal is to make repeated applications so the beneficial fungi can build up to reproductive populations within the grove.

None of the treatments discovered so far are sustainable in the long run, Crane and Ploetz said. As with most plant diseases, the long-term answer is to develop tolerant or resistant varieties. “I’m a big fan of (breeding for) resistance, but the issue with avocados is we have some varieties that have lower susceptibility but no good resistance,” Ploetz said. 

In search of resistance

U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers at Miami and Fort Pierce are working to characterize the avocado genome and possibly identify where different traits – including disease resistance – are located. But Ploetz described the work as a long-term project, and many growers can’t wait. 

He and Crane said they’re hopeful a shorter-term effort can provide growers at least some interim relief.

Most Florida avocadoes are the West Indian race, which are the most susceptible to laurel wilt because the xylem vessels are large diameter and allow the pathogen to spread quickly throughout the tree. Mexican and Guatemalan races tend to have smaller xylem vessels.

“One of the things we’ve started looking at are different rootstocks and scions to see if we can change that xylem architecture,” Ploetz said. “That would be a much more rapid way – to plant trees that are really, really tough.”
A nursery in California is currently propagating grafted trees, and he said they expect delivery in early to mid-2018. Researchers can then begin to inoculate the trees in the laboratory to measure disease interaction.

Food Law Boot Camp focuses on reducing risk

Class action lawsuits in the food industry are on the rise, causing concern for those who grow, pack and ship food products. A recent workshop by a national law firm in conjunction with the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association highlighted those emerging legal issues and ways to minimize risk.

Chris Nemeth and Dan Campbell, attorneys with McDermott Will & Emery, presented two sessions recently at the UF/IFAS research centers in Balm and Belle Glade to discuss trends in food law and provide tips for producers to avoid risk. 

A shift from “big tobacco” litigation to “big food” litigation has led to an uptick in the number of class-action lawsuits claiming injury, Nemeth said, with $525 million paid out in legal fees in “big food” cases in 2015 alone.

The number of class actions increased from 20 in 2008 to 425 in 2015 and 2016, with Miami being one of the top four hot spots. These cases are “yielding huge settlements, and plaintiffs’ attorneys are getting more and more creative. More judges are willing to let cases move forward,” Nemeth said. 

Nemeth explained that some cases are moving into the criminal realm, such as the one involving Peanut Corporation of America executives who were convicted in 2014 of federal felony charges after victims died from eating salmonella-contaminated products. In other instances, companies have to spend so much money defending against a class-action lawsuit that they eventually file for bankruptcy.

Specifically, Nemeth said, his firm is seeing more cases involving “all natural” food labeling, health claims made by food companies, “slack-fill” cases regarding how much product is actually in its container, nominal ingredients in items that claim to be 100 percent of a product, added sugars, and “handmade” claims. Additionally, lawsuits against companies that claim their products are “non-GMO” are on the rise. 

The FDA is now considering how it should define several commonly used food terms, including “natural” and “healthy.” As a result, many courts have stayed cases where those terms are an issue to wait on the FDA’s guidance. However, Nemeth said, he doesn’t think that will stop those types of lawsuits.

Also on the rise are class-action suits over contaminated products. The biggest issue in these cases, Nemeth said, is what actions a company took once it learned there was a problem. Plaintiffs’ arguments that a company didn’t act quickly or effectively enough resonate with juries, he added. Nemeth stressed that putting together a strong recall process paramount. 

Nemeth and Campbell outlined steps to take to minimize risk:

Involve a litigator or attorney in decisions about labeling. “An attorney can tell you what the state of the law is regarding what you can say and what you can’t say on a label,” Nemeth said. If a case goes to court, it paints a good picture that you thought through the issues by engaging an attorney in the decision-making process.

If an issue arises, engage in an assertive public relations campaign. “Times have changed. Plaintiffs’ attorneys are now putting cases out publicly and appealing to the public,” Nemeth said. 

Have a crisis management plan related to contamination and recall issues. The plan should include your response a team, a public relations component, a document preservation policy, recall steps and notifications to insurers and others. The earlier you involve a lawyer the better, Nemeth counseled, because those communications will be privileged and private.

If you’re buying an insurance policy, make sure you have the correct product. Not all “all risk” policies are actually all-risk, Nemeth said. You should carefully analyze the scope and amount of coverage.

For more information involving food law, contact Chris Nemeth of McDermott Will & Emery at or 312-984-3292.

NAFTA 2.0: Will the U.S. get it right? 

For two decades, Mexico has benefited from unfair trade practices while Florida farmers have suffered significant loss of market share.  Now with NAFTA negotiations under way with Canada and Mexico, Florida fruit and vegetable growers have a chance for getting some relief.

"Our seasonal growing industries have suffered years of harm and have every reason to expect some help from the government," said attorney Carolyn Gleason in a Tuesday issues forum, "NAFTA 2.0: Getting It Right."  She added, "The Trump administration is seeking a separate provision for U.S. seasonal and perishable crops, something that has been advocated by the government for more than a decade."

Gleason, who heads the Global Regulatory Practice Group and International Trade Practice for McDermott Will & Emery in Washington, said leaders of FFVA and other fresh produce associations are working closely with the administration and Congress on remedial strategies to deliver that relief – inside and outside of NAFTA.

"Never before has this industry's relief been in such a sharp focus," she said. "Now is the day for the seasonal and perishable industry to be relentlessly engaged and insistent so that NAFTA 2.0 can finally get it right for your sector."

Although President Trump has called for the NAFTA negotiations to be conducted "at warp speed," a new U.S.-Canada-Mexico trade agreement is unlikely to be hammered out in the next few months, Gleason said.  There are also "red line" issues in Mexico or Canada that could kill a NAFTA 2.0 deal at any point along the way.  Once an agreement has been reached, it still would need to be submitted for hearings and approved by Congress and the legislative bodies of Mexico and Canada. 

"The reality is that we will not see a NAFTA 2.0 before 2019 or 2020 at the earliest," Gleason said. "Every U.S. trade deal takes longer than expected to close.
In the meantime, the pace of negotiations will be influenced by shareholder demands in an inflamed trade negotiation environment."

At one end of the spectrum, Trump has called NAFTA "a disaster -- the worst trade deal ever," in part because of the large U.S. trade deficits with Mexico and Canada. On the other hand, many business and political leaders emphasize the benefits of tri-lateral free trade and want to be sure renegotiating the free trade agreement does no harm.

"The only real consensus is that NAFTA needs an update to be brought into the 21st century," Gleason said. "But the predictions of the outcome range from dire to optimistic. The first two rounds of negotiation have been played on the safe side, and the third round is now under way in Ottawa. I believe that if NAFTA 2.0 crosses the finish line, labor provisions will be part of the agreement."

Regarding the Trump administration’s threat to exit NAFTA, Gleason said, "Most people believe that is a negotiating tactic. Mexico is our second largest market, sustaining millions of American jobs. Exiting NAFTA would destabilize the markets and would not help specialty crop growers." 

She encouraged FFVA members to play an active role on NAFTA issues. "Your industry leaders are engaged with the administration, with Congress and with the media," Gleason said. "So stay on it."

A post-Irma look at the state’s agricultural sector

It will take time, but Florida’s agriculture sector will recover from the devastation of Hurricane Irma. State Rep. Jake Raburn (R-Lithia) delivered that assessment in his "State of the Industry” remarks during the opening luncheon for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association’s 74th annual convention in Amelia Island.  

FFVA Board Chairman Paul Orsenigo and Convention Chairman David Hill welcomed more than 420 attendees to the convention and invited them to help the Redlands Christian Migrant Association (RCMA) provide immediate basic living essentials and temporary housing needs to farmworker families affected by Hurricane Irma. Monsanto will donate $50,000 toward the $100,000 goal and is challenging FFVA members to contribute a similar amount. 

Sonia Tighe, director of membership and executive director of the Florida Specialty Crop Foundation, introduced the Class 7 members of the Emerging Leader Development Program, whose sustaining sponsor is DowDupont.  

Later during the lunch, Emily Buckley, a Class 6 graduate, explained how the leadership program helps participants grow personally and professionally. “We have learned so much about the farm industry, while building relationships that will last a lifetime,” she said.

Raburn, an FFVA member, also emphasized the importance of education for the state’s agricultural future, noting the industry’s close ties with the University of Florida and other educational institutions.  “A high-quality workforce is essential for our growers, ranchers and producers, and we need to make a high quality educational experience available to everyone,” he said.

Before Raburn’s state-of-the-industry address, Hill thanked attendees for taking time from their Irma recovery efforts to attend this important annual convention. “The past two weeks have tested our endurance, but we will work through this challenge, adapt and move forward,” he said. 

Raburn emphasized that the impact of Irma cannot be understated. “The wind and rain touched every segment of our industry,” he said. “Even though the storm has passed, Irma will haunt us for months or years to come.”

Particularly hard-hit were citrus growers, who were enjoying a promising forecast after years of battling greening, Raburn said. Then, Irma uprooted trees, left fruit on the ground and water standing in the groves. About 70 to 80 percent of the production in South Florida and almost 100 percent in Southwest Florida was lost to the storm, he said.

Avocado trees were ripped in half, nurseries were stripped of their covering, sugar cane was blown to the ground and many dairy farms were without power and feed for several days, Raburn said. 

“Because of the damage and the delays in planting, many national markets won’t be able to enjoy as much of Florida’s natural bounty as we hoped,” Raburn said. “But resiliency is our industry’s middle name. We rebound after difficult times, and we will continue to do so. Agriculture is our way of life and we are dedicated to providing a safe and affordable food supply for all Americans.”

Florida-grown olive oil potential is limitless

By Vicky Boyd

With the United States producing only a fraction of the total olive oil consumed nationally each year, the potential for Florida-grown olive oil is nearly limitless.

“We consume about 80 million gallons of olive oil a year, and we (the United States) produce maybe 3 to 4 percent of that,” said Michael O’Hara Garcia, president of the non-profit Florida Olive Council in Gainesville. “If you can make olive oil, you can sell it. We could probably sell all of the olive oil we could produce in Florida.”

To capitalize on the market, growers and researchers will first have to overcome a number of hurdles, including finding suitable varieties, determining potential pests and building infrastructure.

But Garcia said he believes it is doable – olives have been grown in Florida since the 1700s. Finding olive varieties for an area south of Interstate 4 that require fewer chill hours, however, will be more challenging.

A recently planted 20-acre experimental grove in Hardee County with varieties from Tunisia, the Canary Islands and North Africa is designed to identify trees that will perform under warmer conditions. The olive council also donated sets of 50 trees comprising 10 different cultivars to a few University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences research centers for trials.

Bill Lambert, economic development director with the Hardee County Industrial Development Commission, said he hopes the trial in his county will show olives as a possible alternative crop for citrus producers hard-hit by citrus greening.

“We hope citrus recovers, but in order to sustain our community we have to find other crops to grow,” said Lambert, who is supporting the olive council’s efforts. “We’re looking for other crops to add to Florida’s repertoire.”

The industrial development commission also is exploring building an olive leaf extract plant, which could produce products even if trees don’t fruit. The extracts are used in soaps, fragrances and dietary supplements, among other items.

Florida olive oil pioneer

Don Mueller has already shown that growers can produce olives in North Florida. Since 1999, he has grown about 400 trees of various varieties near Marianna for both curing and oil. He recently sold his Green Gate Olive Grove for personal reasons.

Mueller first fell in love with olives when he and his family vacationed annually in Sorrento, Italy. The place where they stayed had a 50-acre olive grove around it.

“Over the years, the owner of the hotel had her sons and sons-in-law teach me how to grow them, how to harvest them, how to decide what time to harvest them,” Mueller said.

When he retired and moved to North Florida, he noticed the climate was almost identical to that of Sorrento. Mueller decided to replicate what he had seen in Italy.

Although large olive operations in California use mechanical harvesters with fingers that knock off the fruit, Mueller -- with his much smaller acreage -- used a tarp to catch the olives as he shook the trees. He also processed the fruit into oil with a small press.

In 2008, Mueller’s oil won an award at a Fort Lauderdale contest that attracted international entrants. It was a 50:50 blend of Mission and Arbequina, which Mueller said produces a delicate, buttery-flavored oil.

Extra virgin olive oil

For an olive oil industry to take off in the state, more than just hand presses will be needed, Garcia of the olive council said. Once olives are harvested, growers have only 24 to 48 hours to get them to a mill to be pressed before oil quality begins to deteriorate.

Already, small commercial mills have been built in Live Oak and Ocala and north of the state line in Lakeland, Ga. For them to succeed, Garcia said, each must process 150 to 200 acres’ worth of olives.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the International Olive Council have set strict chemical standards on what qualifies as extra virgin olive oil, known in the industry as EVOO. A University of California Davis study conducted in 2010 found that 69 percent of imported EVOO sampled failed to meet the IOC/USDA standards. Because of the high prices that EVOO can fetch, some purveyors dilute the olive oil with other less expensive oils.

That’s why the Florida Olive Council is working with UF/IFAS and the University of Georgia to develop testing protocols to ensure locally produced oils meet the strict standards. Those oils that pass muster will carry a logo saying they’ve been certified as EVOO.

Building a base

To build a base of knowledge from which a Florida olive industry can launch, UF/IFAS researchers are partnering with Florida growers to learn what they can about how olives will perform in Florida. Jennifer Gillett-Kaufman, an associate Extension scientist in Gainesville, is looking at possible insect pests.

“You know how Florida is,” she said. “If we don’t have a bug for a fruit or vegetable, we’ll get a pest for that fruit or vegetable.”

Gillett-Kaufman has already screened resident fruit fly species, and they don’t appear to be pests of olives. Fortunately, she said, Florida has been successful keeping out the olive fruit fly, which has plagued California olive producers.

Black scale, a pest of citrus, also is a potential pest of olives especially if new olive blocks are planted adjacent to old citrus groves, Gillett-Kaufman said.

 Mack Thetford, an associate professor of landscape ornamentals and plant propagation at the UF/IFAS West Florida Research and Education Center in Jay, is looking at olive cultural practices. 

All of this is in preparation for what Garcia said he hopes grows into a profitable industry.
“If it does work, you have to have a plan in place with consideration for milling, bottling, processing and marketing so the growth can be exponential,” he said. “If you don’t have that base, you cannot leverage your success moving forward.”  

FFVA Cracker Breakfast to host inspirational writer and speaker Andy Andrews

By Mick Lochridge

Best-selling author and popular inspirational speaker Andy Andrews will deliver his take on tackling personal challenges during the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association’s upcoming convention.

The traditional Cracker Breakfast on Sept. 26 will host the Alabama native, who turned a tragic struggle as a teenager into a successful career as a professional communicator with a Southern drawl. Andrews spins stories filled with folksy wit and down-to-earth insights.

Andrews, 58, has written more than 20 books, including three New York Times bestsellers:  “The Traveler’s Gift,” “The Noticer,” and “How Do You Kill 11 Million People?” Speaking requests have come from four U.S. presidents, military officials and business leaders.

Published in 2002,”The Traveler’s Gift” remained on the Times’ bestseller list for 17 weeks and has been translated into more than 40 languages. Subtitled “Seven Decisions that Determine Personal Success,” the book grew from Andrews’ own search to set his life back on course.

When he was 19, his mother died from cancer and his father was killed in an automobile accident. He drifted to the Alabama Gulf Coast, homeless and sleeping at times beneath a fishing pier. During that period he visited the public library, where he read more than 200 biographies of great men and women to learn what made them successful. What he discovered became the foundation of his career as a writer and speaker.

Today Andrews lives in Orange Beach, Ala., not far from that pier. He and wife Polly have two teenage sons. FFVA asked him to answer a few questions in advance of his convention appearance.

FFVAWhy do you think your messages of personal success and inspirational living resonate with men and women today?

Andrews: Everyone wants and needs hope to navigate the life they have chosen, but hope is a vapor — a myth — unless we attach principles to our choices.  It’s a distinction I always make when I write and speak:  Hope without direction is meaningless.

FFVAThinking about Florida’s farmers, what messages do you hope they take away from your talk?

Andrews: I want Florida’s farmers to understand fully the difference they make in our lives.  I want them to feel appreciated, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to help in any way I can.

FFVAHow do your views on leadership, personal choices and consequences apply to farmers?

Andrews: Farmers are our nation’s ultimate entrepreneurs.  Any entrepreneurial effort lives or dies on leadership and personal choices.

FFVAGrowing up in Alabama, what did you see and learn from farmers that helped shape your outlook on life?

Andrews: I was aware from an early age that America’s farmers fed the world.  I have always been proud to be from a state that places such an importance on agriculture.  George Washington Carver is one of my biggest heroes.

FFVAWhat gets you down? What do you do about it?

Andrews: Being away from my family too much will do it.  I have to take charge of my schedule.  Home is certainly where MY heart is.

FFVAWhat role does your faith play in what you do for a living?

Andrews: I feel certain God put me on Earth to do what I do.  My faith is the part of me that leads all others.

FFVAHow do blend your messages and insights into strengthening your marriage and raising your kids?

Andrews: My wife and I have been married 28 years.  Austin is 17, Adam is 15, and Polly is now officially the shortest one in the family!  All my work comes tried and true directly from my family.

FFVAFinal question: What is your favorite vegetable?

Andrews: Corn!

FFVA’S 74th Annual Convention will be held Sept. 25-27 at The Ritz-Carlton in Amelia Island. To see more about the convention and to register, go to To download FFVA’s mobile app, search “FFVA” in the Apple Store or Google Play.

To learn more about Andrews, visit, or watch a short video here.

FFVA convention to focus on trade, labor, and consumer perception issues

Trade issues are top of mind these days for specialty crop producers. Efforts have been underway since early this year to remedy damage to the state’s fresh fruit and vegetable industry from Mexican product being dumped into the U.S. during Florida’s harvest season. That’s a topic that FFVA will focus on in our upcoming 74thannual convention Sept. 25-27 in Amelia Island.

Carolyn Gleason of the Washington office of law firm McDermott Will and Emery and Sharon Bomer Lauritsen, who’s with the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, will explain during one of the three  Issues Forums what’s at stake and what FFVA and other groups are doing to ensure the industry can stay competitive.

Another forum, titled “They just don’t understand: Consumer angst about food and what you can do about it,” will focus on consumer trust. As consumers become more interested in how their food is grown, processed and brought to market, the food system must ensure it builds trust. J.J. Jones of the Center for Food Integrity will talk about how to engage and connect with consumers, telling your story so it will resonate.

Access to a stable, legal workforce remains a top concern for producers, so we’ll focus on that at the convention as well.  With border walls and travel bans dominating the national headlines, where does that leave agriculture? Craig Regglebruge, National Council of Agriculture Employers, will discuss how our industry is strategizing to make sure the administration understands our unique workforce needs.

The convention will also feature two outstanding keynote speakers. State Rep. Jake Raburn will offer his take on the state of the industry during the opening luncheon on Sept. 25. During the annual traditional Cracker Breakfast on Sept. 26, we’ll hear from New York Times best-selling author Andy Andrews. Andrews, who has an interesting life story, wrote The Traveler’s Gift: Seven Decisions that Determine Personal Success. The book stayed on the Times’ bestseller list for 17 weeks. The newspaper hailed Andrews as a “modern-day Will Rogers who has quietly become one of the most influential people in America.”

In between sessions, there will be ample opportunity for networking with colleagues and connecting with our many sponsors. The Florida Specialty Crop Foundation will again offer up a silent auction with loads of great items such as travel packages, fashion and jewelry, artwork, wine selections and more. Proceeds will benefit several of the Foundation’s priorities, including FFVA’s Emerging Leader Development Program and the Redlands Christian Migrant Association. The final dinner with music and dancing will also feature a spirited live auction.

To wrap up the convention, golfers can hit the fairways at the Omni Amelia Island Ocean Links Golf Course. Anglers will be treated to a great fishing excursion in the shallow back country saltwater estuaries, flats and inlets west of Amelia Island.

To see more about the convention and to register, go to . You also can download our mobile app by searching “FFVA” in the Apple Store or Google Play.

Research key to pomegranate success

By Vicky Boyd

Florida’s fledgling pomegranate industry will continue to sprout, growers and researchers say, although work remains to be done in managing the diseases that plague pomegranate trees.

After 10 years of conducting trials into suitable varieties and related cultural practices, Bill Castle remains optimistic, and research at the University of Florida’s Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred is tackling some of the challenges. Castle is a horticulture professor emeritus at the center.

At the outset of his research, Castle said, “I realized that diseases — not insect pests but diseases — were going to be a problem, and we can’t develop a commercial industry until we understand what the disease problems are and how to manage those. I think that is still true today.”

Cindy Weinstein, president of the Florida Pomegranate Association and owner of Green Sea Farms Pomegranate Nursery in Zolfo Springs, said she also remains hopeful.

“Yes, we do have hurdles to jump over. But yes, it’s doable, and we’re getting fruit. Our biggest handicap is getting (fungicide) labels,” she said.

Although Weinstein said she expects that the pomegranate industry will serve local and regional fresh fruit markets initially, she hopes it eventually grows large enough for international markets and related processing, cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries.

Pomegranates are not new to the state, with a small industry dating back to the late 1800s. With the challenges facing the Florida citrus industry and changing consumer tastes and nutritional demands, Weinstein said, pomegranates have seen a resurgence of interest from growers.

Know thine enemy

About four years ago, Castle enlisted the help of Gary Vallad, an associate professor of plant pathology at the UF Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Balm, to identify pathogens and develop ways to manage them.

“Bill came to us because he was having issues with several diseases that were severely limiting his ability to assess their varieties,” Vallad said. “There are a lot of varieties that would do well in Florida if it weren’t for the diseases.”

With the aid of a specialty crop block grant, Vallad began surveying pomegranate plantings to identify diseases and determine which ones were economically important. He found Colletotrichum was causing the most economic damage, followed by Botryosphaeriaceae – nicknamed Bot — and a few others.

“The most important pathogen that’s out there by far is Colletotrichum,” Vallad said, referring to the organism also known as anthracnose. Not only does it cause blossom blight, fruit rot, leaf spots, shoot blight, twig cankers and defoliation, but in severe cases it can cause branch dieback.

Based on that newfound knowledge, Vallad and his colleagues began conducting trials on cooperating growers’ infected trees. Only a few conventional products are registered for use on pomegranates, and they’re mostly for post-harvest diseases. Instead, the researchers focused on fungicides already registered for use on other fruit crops.

A handful of products proved effective, and Vallad said they have worked with the IR-4 Project, which helps develop data to support new Environmental Protection Agency tolerances and labeled uses for minor-use crops. The trials also showed that applying a fungicide at bloom is the most important, Vallad said. Repeating applications at other times of the year didn’t significantly improve disease control.

Building on Castle’s work, Vallad also found that removing dead leaves, diseased branches and rotten fruit on which spores can overwinter are critical to an integrated disease management program.

Growers have taken note, Weinstein said.

“Our trees were infected with fungus, but because of research at GREC we now know what type of fungus we have and been able to clean up our trees for marketable pomegranates,” she said.

In addition, Vallad and his group are trying to determine if there are other hosts for the disease. Because Colletotrichum also affects citrus and blueberries, does having a pomegranate orchard near those crops increase the potential for or severity of infection?

“This becomes really important, because we have a lot of folks who are blueberry growers or citrus growers,” he said.

Breeding for success

As part of the block grant, Zhanao Deng, UF professor of ornamental plant breeding and genetics based at GREC, began a breeding program to develop varieties that could perform well in Florida’s climate and disease pressures. At the same time, the trees had to yield tasty fruit consumers will want.

Deng started with about a dozen different cultivars, including Wonderful, the most widely grown variety in California. He screened the seedlings, selecting for desirable traits. The young trees eventually were planted in a 3.5-acre orchard at Balm and will act as a material source for future breeding.

Another part of the research, led by GREC agricultural economist Zhenfei Guan, involves examining the economics of growing pomegranates.

Shinsuke Agehara, an assistant professor of horticultural sciences at GREC, received a separate specialty crop block grant to study and improve pomegranate tree nutrition.

“It seems pomegranates are really heavy feeders, and people weren’t feeding them nearly enough,” Weinstein said.

For more information, visit UF’s pomegranate website at

For updates on meetings and field days, follow the Florida Pomegranate Association on or

ELDP takes on Tallahassee

Joe Negron’s controversial bill to buy 60,000 acres of sugar cane farmland south of Lake Okeechobee for water storage was the center of discussion when Class 6 of FFVA’s Emerging Leader Development Program and FFVA board leadership walked the halls of the Capitol in Tallahassee halfway through the session. The fate of the land-buy bill may be settled when this column prints, but while the FFVA group was in the capital, most of our conversations eventually ended up turning to SB 10.

The Tallahassee trip is a highlight of the Emerging Leader program. It gives the young agriculture professionals the opportunity to learn about the legislative process, meet with lawmakers and get a taste of political debate and deal-making. Many in the group had not been to the capital before.

The group met with legislators and other key leaders, including Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and interim DEP Secretary Ryan Matthews to discuss priority issues for agriculture. They also heard presentations about the upcoming UF/IFAS budget, Farmers Feeding Florida, the Farm to School initiative, and Fresh From Florida’s new marketing program.

Class 6 also toured the medical cannabis operation of Surterra in Tallahassee. At the plant, the cannabis is propagated, grown and harvested, and the oil is extracted. The oil is shipped to another location to be formulated by dose and delivery method. Surterra, which has plans for a major expansion at the Tallahassee location, also operates a retail storefront dispensary in Tampa.

Visiting with key lawmakers Sen. David Simmons and Sen. Wilton Simpson to discuss Negron’s bill were FFVA President Mike Stuart, Government Relations Director Butch Calhoun, and board Chairman Paul Orsenigo and Vice Chairman Paul Allen. They characterized their discussions with the legislators as “positive.”

The group visited both the House and Senate chambers. Class 6 members participated in a mock legislative session in the Senate after hearing from Sen. Denise Grimsley, who has announced her candidacy for agriculture commissioner in 2018.

The group also met with Reps. Jim Boyd, Matt Caldwell, Jake Rayburn, Tom Goodson, Ben Albritton and Rick Roth.

Produce industry trends – 2017 and beyond

By Doug Ohlemeier

Consumers – particularly millennials – are requesting more convenient and healthier foods, which is changing how produce is sold in stores and offered in restaurants.

Millennials – those born after 1980 and the first generation to come of age in the new millennium – are influencing produce purchases and transforming the way produce is merchandised, said Brian Darr, managing director of Datassential, a Chicago food industry research and consulting firm.

“Research has shown millennials are shopping the store perimeter more as they are interested in and comfortable with preparing more meals at home,” he said. “They are interested in trying new recipes, love variety and are interested in a wider variety of flavors and flavor influences — especially a wider variety of global flavor influences.”

That interest has prompted retailers to expand their produce sections with a wider variety of produce and include more exotic and value-added products, including chopped, shredded, peeled and cubed vegetables, salad kits, and more. “We also know that millennials are fine with a meal including some prepared items and some items they prepare themselves,” Darr said.

In some stores, the produce area is flowing into the deli/prepared foods and cheese sections to facilitate the increased “mix-and-match” shopping. Millennials may place into their shopping carts pulled pork from the deli section and a variety of vegetables to chop or shred, and tortillas to make pulled pork tacos or lettuce wraps with pulled pork, Darr said.

Smart produce marketers should try to serve millennials’ needs by offering convenience products, said Matt Lally, analytics and insights manager for Nielsen Fresh. “They’re not sitting down for as many formal meals,” he said. “They’re having smaller snacks throughout the course of the day. As their demands involve something more convenient and portable, products that are able to adapt to fit into that need are also experiencing a lot of growth.”

Compared to longtime produce department staples like bananas, grapes and potatoes, which are experiencing soft sales from lagging convenience offerings or product innovation, fresh-cut and sliced fruits and vegetables have seen high growth, Lally said. Nielsen Fresh and the United Fresh Produce Association’s quarterly FreshFacts on Retail reports show berries and packaged salads dominating fruit and vegetable category sales.

Grapefruit, watermelons, radishes, heirloom tomatoes and kumquats are experiencing high demand. Growth in sales of grapefruit and watermelons is primarily due to their use in beverages. Watermelon is used with feta cheese on salads, paired with tomatoes in burrata (an Italian cheese) dishes, in gazpacho presentations and as a dessert flavor for lighter sorbets and Italian ices, Darr said.

Radishes add color and crunch to many trending items, including avocado toasts and salads, raw fish dishes and upscale taco offerings. Restaurants are featuring heirloom tomatoes in salads and bruschetta, Darr said. Heirloom tomatoes are also featured with fish and other light proteins as a side for a center-of-plate offerings, he said.

Bowls growing

Bowls, which allow diners to customize their meals, are gaining in popularity and are helping drive vegetable consumption in restaurants.

“While bowls have been added to retail product lineups by a number of fresh produce marketers, another big trend we’ve seen cross over from foodservice to retail is adding value to veggies by fundamentally changing their texture and shape – providing new ways to cook and new textures to enjoy,” said Cathy Burns, president of the Produce Marketing Association.

Spiralized zucchini, cubed butternut squashes and shaved brussels sprouts provide easier and new cooking experiences and huge retail demand. The spiralized veggies explosion is also meeting consumer demand for gluten-free noodle substitutes, Burns said.

Home delivery and online purchasing also is expected to increase in 2017. Meal delivery services including Blue Apron and Hello Fresh “make everyone a chef” and market foods with portion control and restricted servings. The trend helps the produce industry because it exposes consumers to items they may not have tried.

Keeping fast track on the right track

Stakeholders in the fresh citrus industry will have a chance to offer their thoughts on the program that allows them to test new fruit varieties and market them on a fast track. The program, aptly called FAST TRACK, will hold an open forum Jan. 5 at the UF/IFAS Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred to examine the program’s progress and determine how it’s working for participants.

FAST TRACK took form several years ago thanks to the efforts of UF/IFAS, Florida Foundation Seed Producers and the New Varieties Development & Management Corp., of which Peter Chaires serves as director.

“When we looked at the sheer volume of new variety material – what we call new selections – that was in traditional breeding programs, we saw that there were probably in excess of 20,000 unique plants being tested,” Chaires said. “There was a growing need within the industry to be able to trial, on a private level, new experimental selections much sooner than they might otherwise become available. We needed a model to basically empower the growers to do that – so FAST TRACK was developed.”

Traditional Florida breeding programs call for entities such as IFAS and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study experimental plants for 15 to 20 years in replicated field trials, using all types of soil and other growing conditions. The scientists would then collect data so that whenever a variety was released, growers would have an extensive bank of data on which to base their decisions. “That is the perfect way to do it,” Chaires said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t have that kind of time. Nor do we now.”

USDA and IFAS still collect data using traditional methods, but Chaires says that growers want to have their own personal experience. “It happens naturally. If you go by a coffee shop or breakfast restaurant in a growing area, you always see growers gathered around the table in the morning exchanging opinions and learning from each other. So this puts it in their hands where they can try the new varieties and share their opinions with their neighbors,” he said.

In FAST TRACK, growers decide what works for them, and then they can make recommendations as to what should become commercially available.

“Right now, growers get two advantages to participating. They get a lower royalty rate forever in return for their assistance with the program, and they get a five-year production head start,” Chaires said.

FAST TRACK is for UF/IFAS fresh selections only, but Chaires says there are other means of rapidly advancing USDA selections. “Also, Florida Foundation Seed Producers has a program for making IFAS oranges for processing and IFAS rootstocks available much earlier,” he said.

Growers who are interested in participating in FAST TRACK register and pay a nominal fee. They are then granted early access to the material they would have had to wait decades for under traditional circumstances.

The program consists of three tiers.

“Tier 1 is the trial stage where you’re planting a minimum of five trees and a maximum of 30. The fruit’s not for sale. It’s just to gain experience with it and try to determine whether it’s of any value,” said Chaires.

“Tier 2 is if anything goes commercial, meaning that people can grow and sell the fruit. The only people eligible to go to Tier 2 are the people who were in Tier 1. Tier 2 would go for five years and then after the expiration of the five years, it goes to Tier 3, which is when there is open, commercial availability to anyone else who would care to participate – at a higher royalty rate,” he continued.

However, some growers requested an even faster process. “So we put something in called the Early Option, which means ANY grower in the program could go to Tier 2 any time they want,” Chaires said. “They don’t have to move as a group. Some people like that, and some people don’t.”

With citrus greening disease threatening the industry, Chaires says it’s more important than ever to streamline FAST TRACK.

“That’s what we want to accomplish with the open forum. We want more people to be exposed to the program, and we want some assurance that it’s structured in a way that is a benefit to the industry and to the university. We know that not everyone will agree on everything, so all we can do is gather input, compile that and then those three entities that developed it will weigh the input and decide if it’s OK the way it is or whether there’s a need to tweak it.”

Chaires says that the program has a critical need for nursery input. “We need growers, packers AND nursery people. The nurseries are a vital part of the process, and we really work hard to include them because they are front and center. This is a complicated program for them. Nurseries are used to making 5,000 of one thing, such as 5,000 navels on a single root stock. This program means they have to make a little bit of this, a little bit of that … and try to have them all ready at the same time. It’s very complicated, so we especially need them to come to the table,” he said.

Growers, packers and nursery owners are encouraged to RSVP for the forum to Lucy Nieves via email ( or via fax at 321-214-0223.

Contact Peter Chaires via email ( or call 321-214-5214 with any questions about the program or the forum.

Biopesticides – Part of the tool chest

If you told someone who doesn’t work in agriculture that a mustard seed could be classified as a pesticide, they’d probably give you a funny look. Or how about balsam fir oil?

These are examples of biopesticides. And according to some growers, that label is a problem.

Two Florida growers, a researcher from a chemical company and an academic researcher served on a panel at the 2016 Florida Ag Expo held earlier this month at the UF/IFAS Gulf Coast Research and Education Center. They were charged with talking about “maximizing use and effectiveness of biopesticides.”

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, biopesticides are certain types of pesticides derived from such natural materials as animals, plants, bacteria and certain minerals. For example, canola oil and baking soda are considered biopesticides.  As of April, there were 299 registered biopesticide active ingredients and 1,401 active biopesticide product registrations.

Biopesticides have some advantages over conventional pesticides. They are usually inherently less toxic. They generally affect only the target pest and closely related organisms.  They’re often effective in very small quantities and, as a part of an integrated pest management system (using insect or other predators, for example), can be effective at decreasing conventional pesticide usage while encouraging high crop yields.

But there are some downsides to biopesticides. The growers on the panel and some in the audience pointed out a few.

“It’s all about frequency,” said Chuck Obern, owner of C&B Farms, which grows vegetables and other crops in South Florida. “The cost must support the frequency that results in efficacy.” He described an example where he had to apply a biopesticide much more frequently than a conventional product in order to get similar results.

Jamie Williams of Lipman, a large tomato grower, said biopesticides are useful as part of a more extensive plan. “We don’t pass up a tool. They’re part of a tool chest,” he said.

“There is a place for biopesticides. They do work, but you have to figure out if you can afford to use them,” Obern said. “For organic crops, that’s all we can use.”

Gary Vallad, a University of Florida researcher on the panel, is on the case. “We’ve been conducting research trials the same as we would with any conventional product,” he said. “There are a lot of factors that affect evaluation. And it’s helpful to be able to work with growers in large plots. More research is needed to address variables in the field.”

Is the cost and the effort worth the trouble? One answer came from a grower in the audience. Carl Grooms, owner of strawberry operation Fancy Farms, isn’t so sure of that. “Pesticide is a bad word. Even if it’s got ‘bio’ in front of it. People only hear ‘pesticide.’ We need a different term,” he said. “I wonder if we’ll still be using the word in 30 years.”

View archived blog posts prior to 2017 here