(Oct. 1) NAPLES, Fla. — Florida growers put aside the ill effects of four hurricanes for a couple of days of rest and relaxation Sept. 27-28 at the 61st annual Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association Convention at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Naples.

The convention, which drew about 100 fewer than a year ago when 350 attended, acted as a brief reprieve for most grower-shippers after the onslaught of Hurricane Jeanne Sept. 26.

Jeanne hit the state’s Indian River citrus growing region, adding to the damage caused Sept. 4 from Hurricane Frances. State citrus growers were also hit hard Aug. 13 by Hurricane Charley. Hurricane Ivan struck the state’s panhandle region Sept. 16 but had a minimal impact on Florida agriculture.

Despite lower attendance, the convention theme of “Politics and Profitability” provided a backdrop for three well-attended educational sessions, as well as addresses by former Pentagon spokeswoman Torie Clarke and Fred Barnes, executive editor of The Weekly Standard and co-host of the Fox News Channel program “The Beltway Boys.”

The education sessions were highlighted by a discussion titled “Traceability – Your Product in the Pipeline,” led by Bruce Peterson, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of perishables for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Bentonville, Ark., and Doug Grant, chief information officer for The Oppenheimer Group, Vancouver, British Columbia.

Grant addressed the efforts being made for an industrywide standard on data collection to trace foodborne illness and the results of a mock recall conducted by the Canadian Produce Marketing Association and the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del.

He said pilot projects have identified a need for product identification, lot number, a shipment identifier and buyer/shipper identification.

Grant said radio frequency identification, or RFID, is fast growing in popularity at the case and pallet level of the food chain and appears to be an immediate solution due to its standardized code and lower cost.

“It’s an interesting development,” Grant said. “It’s technology with tremendous potential for our industry.”

Peterson was more to the point.

“Don’t let this train pass you,” he said. “People are already talking about wiring fields.”

Peterson said microchips used to store shipment information are becoming less expensive. Chips that were about 30 cents each earlier this year are expected to cost about 5 cents each by late 2006.

He recommended grower-shippers that haven’t done so already put together an RFID plan, start early or as soon as possible and work together with other levels of the food chain process.

Another education session, led by Martha Roberts of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Science, dealt with good agricultural practices for food safety. The third seminar explored citizens’ initiatives and how they can affect the Florida Constitution.

The event also included the annual silent and live benefit auctions, which raised money for hurricane relief to farmworkers.

Tony DiMare, president of Florida operations for DiMare Bros. Inc., Boston, was named FFVA chairman for 2004-05 and Jay Taylor of Taylor & Fulton Inc., Palmetto, was named vice chairman.