California environmental regulations spur WAPA growth

California environmental regulations spur WAPA growth

Many employees who lost jobs in recent years in the California cotton industry due to declining acreage have found new positions in the tree nut processing industry. The California Cotton Growers and Ginners Association and the Western Agricultural and Processors Association work on common issues.

The overall reduction in California cotton acreage in recent years can be viewed from a cause and effect perspective.

California’s water struggles bear more than a modicum of the cause for acreage loss. The impact has been shuttered gins, large layoffs, and career changes for many gin managers and seasonal laborers.

The last year when more than a million acres of Upland cotton was planted in California was 1997. In perspective, there were 59 cotton gins in California in 2000. Last year, about half – 29 - remained.

While the lack of water availability for agriculture continues to plague California farmers and ranchers, many of those acres once dedicated to cotton are now lined with tree nut orchards.

Consumer demand for tree nuts has been dramatic. This growth has not only spurred the construction of new huller-sheller operations, existing operations are now running longer hours to handle increased harvest volumes. In fact, some processing facilities now run year-round.

When new huller-sheller operations are built, existing operations expanded, or work hours extended, the facilities are impacted by various state regulations and permitting compliance requirements.

One person familiar with this picture is Roger Isom, president and chief executive officer (CEO) of the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association (CCGGA).

“After so many of our state’s cotton growers switched to tree nut production, some of their staff eventually found employment in tree nut processing operations,” Isom says.

CCGGA representation

These cotton growers and gin managers had grown accustomed to commodity representation and compliance services handled by the CCGGA.

“Now working within a new commodity field, they suddenly found themselves dealing with unfamiliar, time-consuming, and complicated state regulation forms and requirements with no organization to assist them,” Isom explains.

In 2008, CCGGA was flooded with calls asking for help with these administrative and regulatory-related tasks, yet the grower and ginner boards felt the CCGGA’s plate was already full.

The grower and ginner boards allowed CCGGA to take on some air compliance, safety plan design, and implementation efforts for several almond hullers and shellers on a consulting basis for about a year, says Isom.

By summer 2009, the hullers and shellers came back along with several walnut and pistachio operators.

“While very appreciative of our temporary assistance, they were unwavering in their appeal to have a uniform and constructive organizational voice representing their interests in front of the various state regulatory agencies in Sacramento,” states Isom.

The CCGGA boards finally agreed and approved moving forward with an organization if the groups provided supportive funding. In 2009, the Western Agricultural and Processors Association (WAPA) was launched.

Gaining momentum

Early on, Isom could see the potential for WAPA’s growth. The group did not represent per se anyone other than tree nut shellers and processors. Yet, since many California growers are diversified, Isom and his staff began receiving service requests from tomato processors, vegetable dehydrators, and even out-of-state, non-member requests which they agreed to serve time permitted.

Since WAPA is a non-profit association, Isom says the money made from “non-member consulting work” is put right back into the association to cover costs and off-set dues.

Most of WAPA’s initial needs in 2009 dealt with securing air permits and designing safety plans. Isom contacted Elda Brueggemann, who then was involved in those types of efforts for the Olam agribusiness firm. She had experience working with cotton gins and almond hullers so she was a natural fit to join WAPA.

EPA regulations

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hands down regulations which many states readily adopt, but EPA allows states the right to draft their own regulations, as long as the regulations incorporate mandated EPA minimums, Isom says.

California state regulatory agencies have always been more stringent than most other state and federal regulatory agencies – often drafting regulations so stringent that it often causes manufacturers and industries from other states or countries to shy away from relocating to the Golden State.

“When we design ‘lockout/tagout’ safety plans for gins in California, they have to be very specific, incorporating written procedures for each motor and-or piece of equipment,” says Isom. “Arizona state regulations allow us to view things from a broader perspective and group items together. It’s not nearly so in-depth or burdensome.”

The CCGGA and WAPA are housed in the same building in Fresno. Since the majority of the requests for the groups are similar in scope, the two organizations are served by the same staff. WAPA has two additional employees.

Isom says, “Organizationally, we were already positioned to absorb the additional work brought on by the creation of WAPA. The additional work resulted from our implementation efforts – actually researching and writing safety plans, and filing permits.”

WAPA’s Board

While there 12 members on WAPA’s board, the organization’s by-laws allow for a maximum of 15. Isom believes the extra three seats will be filled in the future.

All commodity boards should strive for equal board representation, and WAPA has an across-the-board balance in this area. Isom says this is an impressive feat since they do not “hand pick” board members. The election process is open and WAPA has more people running for positions than the seats available.

“WAPA has representatives from all four tree nut segments, a good balance between hullers-shellers and processors, and a good geographic balance between the Sacramento Valley and the San Joaquin Valley. We’re accomplishing our goals in this area,” Isom explains.

CCGGA, WAPA a good match

Michael Kelley, president and CEO of Central California Almond Growers Association (CCAGA), is the WAPA Board’s 1st vice chairman. He says Isom understands WAPA’s value to the CCAGA.

Isom worked for the Fresno County Air Pollution Control District (FCAPCD) after college. Kelley believes Isom has an excellent relationship with FCAPCD staff.

“I think Roger was the best hire Earl Williams ever made for CCGGA. WAPA definitely benefits from his experience and guidance,” Kelley believes.

“Due to the experience WAPA’s staff has with safety programs, air and regulatory issues and permitting requirements, WAPA is an invaluable organization and saves us a lot of headaches,” Kelley believes.

He predicts consumer demand for almonds and other tree nuts will continue to grow, and also sees the same growth potential for WAPA and the services they provide.

At the CCAGA, up to 80 truckloads of almonds can be shelled every 24 hours, despite receiving more than 220 truckloads some days. Some almonds are unloaded in the stockpile yard and fumigated with phosphine gas to kill Navel orangeworm, ants, and any other pests picked up during harvest.

The WAPA board officers include: Chairman Don Barton (Gold River Orchards); 1st Vice Chair Mike Kelley (CCAGA); 2nd Vice Chair Butch Coburn (Hughson Nut); and Secretary-Treasurer Kirk Squire (Horizon Nut).

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