Labor and food safety loomed large during the grower panel at the 10th annual Florida Ag Expo held at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Balm. Moderated by FFVA President Mike Stuart, participants included Leonard Batti, Taylor Farms; Jay Sizemore, JayMar Produce; Elvie Engle, Del Monte; and Tres McQuag, Astin Farms.
“Labor has become the top conversation,” Engle said. “Where do you get it? Where do you get enough of it? Where do you find good, reliable labor?”
According the panelists, the lack of reliable labor and the competition for the domestic labor that is available is driving more growers to the H-2A program.
McQuag says Astin Farms has been using the program for a number of years, and while it is expensive and cumbersome, it is a program he likes.
“It is a very good and secure feeling knowing you will have a workforce with H-2A,” he said. “I also like that you have an eager group of young men there to work who are glad to be there.”
Sizemore said he has avoided the program thus far and gave an example of a grower friend who had used H-2A with success for years, but because of some technicality ended up dealing with a large lawsuit against his farm.
“My biggest fear with H-2A going forward is getting crossways with the Labor Department and ending up with a lawsuit,” Sizemore said.
With the Food Safety Modernization Act rules right around the corner, there is a new emphasis on the subject.
Batti noted on the fresh-cut side, individual customer demands are driving the process as much, if not more than government regulations.
“The demands from foodservice and fast food buyers are very intensive requirements for food safety and rigorous audits,” he said. “For the most part, we gladly do this because our goal is the same to ensure the safety of our food to consumers.”
“The one thing that bothers me with all the things we are doing for food safety, these outbreaks are still happening,” Engle said. “We need to figure out why. We are spending tons of money on hair nets and washing hands, which I agree with, but it is not fixing the problem. That is where the research needs to get involved to help to figure out how these things occur and move.”
Special thanks to DuPont Crop Protection for sponsoring special coverage of the Florida Ag Expo.