The face of Florida produce is changing. For years the Sunshine State has been known for citrus and tomatoes, strawberries and winter vegetables. And while all those industries are still viable, new players are emerging and stamping their own imprint on the Florida produce deal. So are the demands and tastes of the emerging millennial generation.

There are challenges aplenty. Citrus is under the dire threat of HLB – citrus greening disease – which has cost the state 500,000 acres of citrus groves in the last decade [EDITOR’S NOTE: Look for an update on the future of the Florida citrus industry in the April 7 issue of SPW]. Tomatoes face stiff competition from Mexican growers. Labor is an ongoing concern and that situation is not improving. Worries over water rights and resources are another common refrain.

“So many of our issues are ones that are ongoing so when you talk about things like workforce and water and pest and diseases, those things never go away, those are always a constant for us, we chip away and make progress then other challenges come up but those are still issues that are dominating the landscape,” said Lisa Lochridge, Director of Public Affairs for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association.

Citrus greening and increased foreign competition “are existential threats to our industry,” Lochridge said, “so in order to survive were going to have to adapt. That’s not difficult for farmers, they’ve adapted over decades depending on the challenges before them.”

Labor is perhaps even more worrisome since it directly impacts the nation’s ability to feed itself.

Labor Challenges Present a Food Security Threat

“The challenges are very real when you’re talking about workforce. We’re continuing to be short and it’s getting worse,” Lochridge said. “We have a very broken H2A visa program that is the only tool in our toolbox. Our challenge is to continue to try to work towards a program that will meet the needs of Florida ag and give our growers a steady workforce. That’s really a food security issue. People don’t think about it that way, but we’re either going to be bringing our workers in from other countries or bringing our food in from those countries.”

Florida tomato growers face stiff competition from foreign imports

“The good news for us is from a consumer trend standpoint there is an ever-increasing demand for what we grow,” Lochridge said. “We’re growing the healthy fruits and vegetables that people want. And the interest in local food and people’s interest in where their food comes from opens a door for us to tell our story. For all Florida, we’re local. And for the Eastern U.S. to be able to say, ‘We’re buying Florida-grown product,’ they love that. Those are some trends that bode well for Florida.”

It’s increasingly important for Florida farmers to tell their stories with 1,000 newcomers a day moving into the state. As urban development continues, an already tenuous connection with the mainstream and agriculture weakens.

‘People Aren’t Aware of Who We Are’

“People just aren’t aware of who we are and what we do and the tremendous impact we have on the economy and health of this state,” Lochridge said. Consumers’ burgeoning interest “in where their food is grown is a great opportunity for us. Consumers want to connect with the person who grew their food, the area where their food was grown, so that’s a perfect chance for us to be talking about what we do and why we do it. That gives us a chance to emphasize the stewardship of the land and the economic impact we bring. It behooves us to be out there talking to our neighbors and communities and elected officials about what we do and why it’s so important to the state of Florida.”

Consumer trends are right in line with what Florida growers are already doing. There is “surging opportunity” in ethnic vegetables as they move from immigrant tables to television cooking shows to the American mainstream “and we have a number of growers who produce those vegetables.”

The emergence of the Florida peach industry in an early window before Georgia and South Carolina come on has happened in the last decade. And some believe Florida can surpass Georgia as the South’s leading producer of blueberries – a crop that was virtually nonexistent here 20 years ago.

“Now more than ever growers are really staying in tune with the market and what consumer demand is and trying to be nimble and seizing on those opportunities,” Lochridge said. “Radicchio and ethnic vegetables and eggplant in lots of different varieties… This whole growing interest in where food comes from and eating clean, making healthy choices, all of those play into what Florida provides and that makes for a bright future for our industry. And with the millennial generation moving forward, food choices are a lifestyle and that bodes well for us.”

Convenience, Ugly Fruit, Hops, Hemp and Pongamia

Consumers are making it clear with their wallets that they want convenience and healthy food. The rise of prepackaged goods will no doubt continue and “fruit at 7/11 is a huge stride,” Lochridge said.

“Millennials are changing our meal patterns; you’re seeing snacking throughout the day or many small meals as opposed to breakfast, lunch and dinner so those convenience items, small salads, a fruit here or there or grape tomatoes in a single serving, that’s changing the way they approach their meals. Making those products available in convenience stores and places that they haven’t had a presence before, that’s a terrific opportunity.”

Ugly fruits and vegetables – perfectly good food that’s simply unattractive – is another area for growth, but “it’s slow to catch on, consumers want perfect product. Changing that mindset would reduce food waste.”

They say the only thing that’s guaranteed is change and Florida farmers prove that daily. The Florida Pomegranate Association formed recently. Lochridge says there’s “a lot of interest” in seeing how hops for beer fare in the Florida’s climate. Some citrus growers are considering growing hemp for fiber where orange trees once stood. And at least one is experimenting with pongamia, a tree native to India that produces oil similar to soybeans.

“When you look at farming 60 years ago compared to farming today it’s a completely different world, farmers have to wear so many hats,. They have to be agronomists, accountants, meteorologists, experts in consumer trends, so it’s much more complicated and nuanced these days,” Lochridge said. “But some of the same issues that were issues 60 years ago still are now. I go pull out old FFVA magazines and they were complaining about labor and taxes and government and overregulation.”

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