Food safety, farm bill, water, immigration top 2007 issues for Western Growers

Unbeknownst to wide-eyed and eager nine-year-old Steve Patricio, California history was created before his young twinkling eyes in 1962. He gazed in youthful wonderment as President John F. Kennedy and California Gov. Pat Brown, Sr. broke ground for the San Luis Reservoir near Los Banos, Calif.

Fast-forward 45 years to 2007 when Patricio, chairman of the Western Growers Association (WGA), stands at the now completed reservoir. He rubs shoulders and shares a microphone with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and business leaders. The issue — unprecedented low storage reservoir levels as a result of the 10-day shutdown of the Delta pumps, and the need to adopt a comprehensive water solution offered by Gov. Schwarzenegger.

“Who would have ever thought that 45 years later I would be standing at the same reservoir as chairman of Western Growers and with Gov. Schwarzenegger advocating surface water storage and north-south conveyance?” Patricio quipped during his chairman's report at the WGA annual meeting in mid-November in Maui, Hawaii.

Patricio, who also serves as president and chief executive officer of Westside Produce, Firebaugh, Calif., reflected on 2007 at the WGA board helm, dissecting the year into four major categories during his verbal report card to members.

Patricio patted the WGA squarely on the shoulders for its leadership role in creating the California Leafy Green Marketing Agreement (LGMA), just six months after an E. coli outbreak was linked to California-grown spinach in 2006. By late 2007, WGA had successfully shepherded a basic carbon copy of the LGMA into Arizona.

“This process was complicated and in many ways was a leap of faith by industry. WGA acted as a facilitator bringing together the industry,” Patricio said. “While many regulators, legislators, and other parts of the industry are talking about food safety improvement, the California and Arizona LGMAs represent the only tangible policy changes that have been implemented since the outbreaks.”

The next challenge to advance food safety is at the federal level by creating a more level playing field for produce grown in the United States and imported from other countries.

On the immigration front, success mixed with frustration-clouded efforts in 2007 to enact federal comprehensive reform legislation. Patricio, WGA President and CEO Tom Nassif, and other California agricultural leaders continued a myriad of fast-paced lobbying efforts with California's congressional delegation.

The high point of the national immigration tug-of-war was one-on-one meetings with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl toward the successful birth of a “grand compromise” in the U.S. Senate. The low point, Patricio said, was the U.S. Senate's failed attempt to invoke cloture — coming up short of the required 60 votes.

“It's truly amazing that despite the best efforts of all of us in agriculture, we are still fighting for a legal, stable, and economic workforce,” Patricio said. “With Western Growers leading the way, agriculture has truly made its cause. In fact, our new path is trying to stop the Department of Homeland Security from enforcing the social security no match rules.”

On the 2007 farm bill, Patricio lauded the specialty crop industry's success in gaining nearly $2 billion in funding in congressional farm bill versions. The fruit and vegetable industry has been excluded from such financial inclusion since the inception of federal farm legislation in 1949.

“It's hard to believe that today we have made it through the U.S. House and we're on the Senate floor with an appropriation of nearly $2 billion of real money committed to the specialty crop industry.”

Patricio acknowledged California's “farm bill champions” in the U.S. House — California's Congressmen Dennis Cardoza of Modesto and Jim Costa of Fresno.

The fourth issue Patricio covered was water, a fight that comes around every 40 to 50 years. He shared a quote often linked to the legendary Mark Twain — ‘Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over.’

“We have a real water fight on our hands,” Patricio said. “We are indeed fortunate to have a governor willing to take up this crucial issue. We have had more than our share of droughts — weather droughts and political droughts — over the last 30 years. But our next droughts will be much more challenging as our population in California has more than doubled.”

Patricio also advocated the WGA's opening of a Washington D.C.-based office in 2007. More and more issues of the greatest concern to WGA members are national and international in scope. The WGA day-to-day representation in Washington D.C. is led by Cathleen Enright.

The WGA elected Bob Gray of Duda Fresh Foods Inc., Salinas, Calif. as board chair in 2008.

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