(Sept. 27) AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. — The tradition-rich Cracker Breakfast — a unique blend of chandeliers, cheese grits and folksy music in a Ritz-Carlton ballroom — was different from the very start.
An American flag was centered on each of the dozens of tables, where red, white and blue balloons streamed up on tethers. After the color guard marched in, the more than 200 members and guests of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association forcefully recited the Pledge of Allegiance.
And when the national anthem was sung, it sounded as though everyone joined in — singing the words, not whispering them.
What followed was surely the most sobering keynote address ever for FFVA’s annual convention, which took place Sept. 23-25 on Amelia Island.
REVIEW OF ATTACK
Robert Novak, the noted Washington insider and political commentator, talked nothing at all about agriculture — except to allude to the news that was just spreading about multiple visits by terrorist Mohamad Atta to a Belle Glade crop duster operation in the weeks before the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
“To talk about Washington is to talk about a world transformed since the horrible events of Sept. 11,” Novak said, and then recounted the dreadful decision President Bush soon had to make in giving the order to shoot down the fourth hijacked airliner (which apparently was brought down over Pennsylvania by a passenger uprising before fighters intercepted it).
“It’s been a different George W. Bush since then.”
And a different climate in the nation’s capital. Legislation to come, Novak said, will have to be bipartisan, which means probably no capital gains tax cut but likely an acceleration of income tax cuts.
Novak’s thoughts, however, can be extrapolated into the fresh produce sector. He said the U.S. government is embarking on a spending spree, and several observers at the convention agreed that means money could become tight for agriculture programs.
The overarching bipartisan mood in Washington, almost by necessity, means highly charged issues could be shunted aside indefinitely. Immigration — specifically, granting amnesty to illegal aliens — could be a case in point.
In an educational workshop, Walter Kates, FFVA’s director of labor relations, suggested that the recent terrorist attacks have complicated guest worker reforms, which he said the industry still needs badly.
Because some of the terrorists appear to have come into the U.S. through Canada or Mexico with fraudulent visas, Kates said, discussions have begun on unprecedented topics, such as a national identification system or mandatory verification of Social Security numbers through the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
“That would be a death knell for many parts of agriculture,” Kates said, noting mismatched numbers identified from W-2 forms on up to 80% of farm workers in recent years suggests a high percentage of illegal aliens continue to work in agriculture.
Another proposal floating about is to move all border patrol agents to the interior of the U.S. to round up illegals and post National Guard troops at the border, Kates said.
“One of the major parts of the anti-terrorist package is the whole issue of immigration,” he said. “I don’t think these things will happen, but that they’re even talking about them is extraordinary. I would hope Congress would reflect on the impact that could have and hopefully not do it.”