As you are all aware, our last season was one of the most challenging ones we have ever experienced.

Warmer than normal conditions during late fall and winter delayed the onset of dormancy and resulted in very low winter chill accumulation. The unusually warm winter combined with an El Niño climate phase (cloudy and cool conditions during our fruit set and development phase) were major factors delaying harvest of the 2016 Florida blueberry crop.

As a result, we were later than we have ever been on our harvest, which meant our fruit hit the market at an unusual time this year.

Many of you also lost entire fields to weather events like wind and hail storms and packing facilities closed down early due to low volumes of fruit. Because our neighbors to the north did not experience the same issues we faced, they came in on time and our labor left before we could finish our harvest.

It is important that you know your Executive Committee and Board of Directors are committed to finding assistance for our members. We have been in close communication with Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam’s office. Last week, the majority of your Board of Directors were on a call with the commissioner and his executive team, who expressed concern and a willingness to help anyway they could. We are currently working closely with them to get answers to questions involving insurance, bonding, credit lines, and loans. While there is not much they are able to do at the state level, they are helping us navigate the USDA to see if there is any assistance available to our members on the federal level. We will also be having a meeting with our friends at UF/IFAS to see if there is any assistance to be had there.

Commissioner Putnam’s chief of staff put me in touch with Tom Hockert at the Farm Service Agency. Tom is going to put his troops on alert that we have a situation. I made sure he was aware that counting the fruit left in the fields as harvestable is nonsense. Not only is the fruit worthless if it costs us more to harvest it than we get paid, but delaying trimming operations by continuing to harvest too long affects next year’s crop. This is an issue we will continue to work on with them. If you had losses greater than 30 percent, please contact me so that when FSA starts calculating losses, I can put them in touch with you.

Commissioner Putnam’s office will begin promoting U-Pick Blueberry Season in Florida on social media and radio this week. The primary target area is Central Florida, Tampa and Gainesville/Ocala. If your location and farm layout can be made to work for public harvest, please let us know so we can help you market your operation. Getting the last of the fruit off the bush with little or no labor cost will help add needed revenue this season. The FBGA website has a portal for you to add your farm for you pick operations and is one of the most popular destinations on the site.

The most important thing to remember right now is that one bad year does not kill an industry. We are innovators and have always met obstacles to our success. We will overcome this season and grow and learn from it.

Your FBGA Executive Committee and Board of Directors remain committed to helping our industry grow and thrive, but we need your help. While this year was undoubtedly a difficult one, we ask that you resist speaking to the media or other outside groups about the problems we have faced. Doing so will not elevate our industry or gain us assistance, rather, it could make an already difficult situation more difficult by ensuring our members have trouble securing lines of credit and insurance in the coming years.

Last year’s harvest season is behind us now and we are beginning our summer growing season. At this time, it is vital that we pull together, stay positive, and do everything in our power to make sure next year’s harvest is a productive one.