GSA is vocal mouthpiece, meeting place for Salinas Valley agriculture

Kay Filice's just-completed term as board chair of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, Salinas, Calif. made history in more ways than one.

She was not only the first woman to head the 68-year-old organization, but during her term the industry forged the unprecedented leafy green agreement in response to perhaps the biggest food safety issue ever to hit the fresh produce industry.

Filice, president, Filice Farms, Hollister, Calif., grows onions, peppers, tomatoes, leafy greens, celery, and bing cherries on 1,400 acres in San Benito County. She's deeply concerned about the current downturn in the valley's leafy green industry caused in part by decreased consumer demand that has kept produce prices soft.

“We have stood by and watched field after field be partially disked this spring and summer due to the oversupply of lettuce,” Filice said. “You can drive around this valley and you'd be surprised by the number of romaine fields being disked.”

Today immigration reform, water availability, and food safety are among the front burner issues at the GSA headquarters. The first discussions on food safety began several years before the 2006 E. coli outbreak. After the outbreak such meetings were held almost daily.

Established in 1930, the GSA is an agricultural trade association with about 300 members providing services, programs, and representation in Monterey, Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, and San Benito counties. The membership role includes growers, shippers, harvesting companies, packers, processors, seed companies, carton companies, and related associate member organizations.

California's worsening water supply emergency is tightening the faucet on Filice's crop production prospects. Her federal water allocation is 40 percent of normal which has pushed her to seek alternative water solutions.

“I have several wells and recently drilled another one that's very productive that will help makeup a portion of the water loss.” She's also purchased unused federal water from neighbors. Due to widespread water reductions, the wait time to drill a new well is now 6-12 months.

Filice pays $117 per acre foot including transportation costs for federal allocated water, less than water costs in the Central Valley, which range from $450-$550 per acre foot for open market water, in part tied to the controversial federal court ruling last year on the endangered Delta smelt.

“That's why some farmers in the Central Valley aren't farming; instead they are selling their water,” Filice said. “California is growing by 500,000 people a year, yet there has not been one penny spent on infrastructure in the state in over 20 years. We don't have the storage capacity. Our water services aren't capable of servicing that kind of population much less the water needs in agriculture.”

Filice called the water supply outlook grim. If legislation is passed to build new storage, it would take 10 years or longer before an effective resolution could become reality. Water is a long-term problem, she said.

The uncertainty over water supplies will likely decrease Filice's leafy green plantings from double cropping to single planting in some fields. She credits her farm management team for successful water saving measures including ground and sub-surface drip irrigation.

“My staff knows exactly how much water they are using. Sometimes in agriculture that's not always the case,” Filice said. “My staff has 30 years of experience and knows how much water the ground will hold and the amount of water required to grow the crop.”

Food safety is a large blip on Filice's radar screen as she serves on the Center of Produce Safety's board at the University of California, Davis.

“You would think with all the food safety issues with China with fish, pet food, and toys that people in this country would be more concerned about inspections and importing food from other countries. I think food grown in California is the highest quality food currently grown in the nation.”

Filice said the establishment of the LGMA was unprecedented and a good first step in further advancing food safety to ensure consumer confidence. While she hopes the agreement will be enacted nationally, it's not a “one-size-fits-all”; it should be commodity or regionally specific.

Filice in May handed the GSA gavel to Dennis Donohue, president, Royal Rose LLC, Salinas, Calif., the flamboyant, outspoken, pro-agriculture mayor of Salinas. Royal Rose is the world's largest grower of the Italian chicory radicchio used in salads, pastas, and risotto. Dennis is the latest Donohue family member to serve as the GSA chair.

The effective orator, farmer, and Salinas leader desires to further increase the visibility of the GSA and Salinas Valley agriculture during his term as chair through advancing concepts he calls “fresh culture and lifestyle destination.”

“We have to sell our freshness,” Donohue said. “The Silicon Valley is the intellectual nerve center for high tech industry; the Salinas Valley is the intellectual nerve center for fresh vegetables and value added.”

“I want to focus on the fresh laboratory and fresh culture. They will be my twin pillars to talk about as board chairman in addition to the day-to-day issues that arise,” Donohue said.

The Salinas Valley has been playing defense for the last couple years; it's time to play offense, Donohue said. “I'm really convinced as mayor that our best days lay ahead.”

The Salinas Valley is the world's freshest garden. Just because it's big and efficient doesn't mean the vegetables are not fresh, Donohue said.

“The vegetable industry can learn a lesson from the wine industry's success in creating mystique and romance with wines,” Donohue suggests. “The vegetable industry should focus more on why these products are important to the country and the health of its citizens. It boils down to marketing.”

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