Sunshine State growers are looking to the upcoming farm bill to get help with automation, an issue they raised several times Monday at a House Ag Committee listening session in Newberry, Florida.

Producers of many different specialty crops said labor challenges are forcing them to look toward mechanizing various processes on their operations.

Mike Hill and his father David, the chair of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, both addressed the members of the committee to say the issue is a matter of the survival of the sector.

“When I was about 10 or 12 years old, I wanted to be a farmer, and (my parents) tried to talk me out of it,” Mike Hill said, citing his parents' long work days and the grueling stress of running an operation. “None of those things scared me, so I became a farmer. Now, my kids are asking the same question … I’m telling them there’s no future, because it’s the truth.”

“A reimbursement-based cost-share program to replant our fields into technology-driven varieties where we can harvest by machine and not rely on labor would help us out in a big way,” he said.

Adam Lytch, a north Florida regional manager for L&M Farms, said “everything we grow is either hand-harvested or hand-sorted.”

“For two seasons now, we’ve been experimenting with robotic broccoli harvesting, and while the technology is promising, we are still years and millions of dollars away from a viable solution,” he said.

But Lytch said the issue extends beyond the work done in the field. He said his company is looking into other steps in the production process, including the planned installation of machinery to stack potatoes onto pallets.

“Our (return on investment) was pretty easy to calculate when the alternative is there’s no workers to manually do those jobs,” he said.

Specialty crop producers also asked for bolstered research funding and expanded trade promotion funding, a set of priorities they share with many of the nation’s farm groups.

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Local peanut producers also asked the committee to consider a voluntary base acre update in the farm bill. Florida producer Trey Sanchez cited research that argued an update is needed for about 112,000 acres across the region, and “industry processors do not believe this base increase would skew the market.”

“We recognize that the budget situation for this farm bill is difficult; many farms are also struggling with a difficult budget situation due to the lack of access to (Price Loss Coverage) safety nets,” he said. “Peanuts are a small commodity with a big problem.”

The committee also heard an impassioned defense of the American sugar program — and a plea to keep foreign-grown product out of the U.S. market. Ardis Hammock, a Florida sugarcane grower who is also the president of the South Florida Agricultural Foundation, gave a rundown of the various percentage increases for input prices — fertilizer up 47% in the last five years, for instance — while the lawmakers were delivered a box of snacks.

“The candy that I made for you in the box for you today has two cents worth of sugar in it,” she said. “The box cost 22 cents; I hope you enjoy it.”

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