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.”

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