Recently I was able to do an email interview with Christina Morton, director of communications for the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association (FFVA), about some conditions in her state.
What is the long-range trend in agricultural acreage in Florida? Growing, declining, staying the same?
The most recently available data from the U.S. Census of Agriculture shows acreage is stable.
In which parts of the state is agriculture most prone to urbanization pressures?
Urban encroachment is occurring throughout the state as a result of sprawl in almost all major metro areas, including Jacksonville, Miami, Orlando, Pensacola, Tallahassee, and Tampa.
Could you comment on trends in the mix of specialty crops, notably fruits and vegetables? Which crops are becoming more common? Less common?
Florida continues to lead the nation in production of grapefruit, watermelons, and fresh market tomatoes, snap beans, and cucumbers. The state is second in production of bell peppers, strawberries, fresh market sweet corn, squash, and tangerines.
Innovation and diversification are key qualities that keep specialty crop agriculture thriving. Florida’s climate makes it possible to grow a wide variety of crops, and growers are always looking for ways to diversify the crops they grow. Research is taking place in potential new crops and varieties for Florida, such as artichokes, blackberries, pomegranates and even tea. In citrus, innovations like growing citrus under protective screen (CUPS) provide a way to better protect trees from the Asian citrus psyllid and citrus greening disease.
How much citrus acreage is being pulled per year, and what is it being replaced with?
Over 387,000 acres of citrus were harvested in 2019. As recent as 1996, before the introduction of citrus greening disease, Florida grew its citrus crop on more than 815,000 bearing acres. Solutions for citrus greening are being researched, and we see promising research from the University of Florida/IFAS, USDA Agricultural Research Service and many others. Each incremental improvement is helpful.
Many hands are working to support and sustain this important economic driver for our state, and this season was certainly a great reminder of that commitment.
The unfortunate reality is as citrus growers decide to leave the industry entirely because of a variety of challenges, specifically citrus greening disease, the land is not likely to return to citrus. However, investment in citrus research protects our way of life and ensures a reliable domestic food supply. Covid certainly has reminded us how important that is.
Are growers having trouble attracting enough labor for their crops?
Domestic workforce availability is a constant challenge, and the situation is not getting any better. Use of the H-2A guest worker visa program is at an all-time high nationally, and Florida continues to be the number one user of the program. Right now, it’s the only tool in the grower’s toolbox in securing an adequate workforce due to the lack of domestic workers.
The program is expensive, cumbersome, and badly in need of an overhaul. The House passed legislation last year that would do just that, but there are concerns over some components of the bill. There is also some movement in the Senate to introduce a bill very soon that would, hopefully, address outstanding inadequacies in the legislation passed by the House.
Bottom line: Our members—and the entire industry—need the stabilization of wages and greater access to the H-2A visa program, including definitional and seasonality changes.
How much are growers concerned about competition from Mexico and other nations (e.g., for fresh market tomatoes)?
The issue that is front and center for FFVA and our members right now is fair trade. FFVA continues to urge the Administration to implement a plan that offers immediate, effective and enforceable trade relief to U.S. specialty crop growers. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service have documented the extraordinary challenges that domestic growers are experiencing amidst surging imports from Mexico.
As a country, we simply cannot become reliant on foreign imports to supply our food.
Without relief from unfair foreign competition, American consumers will be forced to rely on foreign sources for fresh fruits and vegetables—a result that is neither resilient nor secure.