Dave Puglia recalls being encouraged by Ken Khachigian, former speechwriter to President Reagan, to call Tom Nassif at Western Growers Association about a job opportunity. Puglia was not looking for a change and admits he knew very little about agriculture at the time. What he knew about the association led him to believe the conversation would be a short one.
Puglia's met Khachigian early in his career as a political consultant in Sacramento, Calif. Both were consultants to various people and organizations and by 2005 Khachigian was consulting with Western Growers. Puglia was a Sacramento lobbyist, working with financial services firms, insurance companies, and others outside of agriculture.
"I was in a consulting business at the time and was having a good time and really enjoyed it," Puglia said.
Nassif was looking for someone to lead the organization's lobbying efforts. Puglia initially did not want to be that person because of concerns that trade associations can be risk-averse and cash poor. Over time he learned that Western Growers was not merely a trade association dependent solely upon membership dues or the whims of a board; Western Growers, it seemed, had a different business model while still working to serve farmers in much the same way as the other trade associations.
Out of those conversations with Nassif and a former board member, Puglia was to run the organization's lobbying efforts. Last October the Western Growers board unanimously named Puglia, 55, to succeed Nassif as president and chief executive officer after Nassif announced his retirement. Nassif served 18 years as the organization's chief executive.
Western Growers operates a multitude of businesses that include insurance, financial services, human resources, and legal affairs, to name a few. It also operates a foundation created by its members to give back to their communities by planting and sustaining fruit and vegetable gardens in willing Arizona and California schools. A 45-member board represents growers, packers and shippers of fruit and produce across the four-state region.
Puglia says it is through the various businesses that Western Growers can sustain the various lobbying and advocacy efforts the association takes on at the state and national levels. Western Growers serves members in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado.
"Western Growers is a collection of companies tied to providing services to the industry," Puglia said. "We take those revenues up to the trade association to be the best trade association we can, with a lot of resources, without having to depend on membership dues or a trade show."
Five years ago, WGA launched the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology in Salinas, an ag tech incubator aimed at connecting farmers with technology. The idea was borne out of conversations Puglia said former board chairman Bruce Taylor of Taylor Farms was having with staff.
Though Taylor recognized that the ag tech center would serve the various produce businesses that compete against each other for market share, they all had common hurdles that threatened their long-term viability and sustainability. Rather than beat each other up over those differences, Taylor's vision was to open source the search to address those common issues and find solutions the entire produce industry could benefit from.
"Most of these issues come from regulatory demands," Puglia said. "Why not bring all of that intellectual firepower together and feed that technology going forward?"
Building an ag innovation center in Salinas, Calif., was a logical choice given the region's proximity to Silicon Valley and its ability to grow a cornucopia of vegetables in the cool, summer climate.
"You have to create an ecosystem that feeds this creative energy," he says of the ability to draw entrepreneurs, engineers and venture capitalists into the same room to find answers to the various man-made challenges facing produce farmers today.
One of those pain points centers on the availability of the human labor needed to harvest and handle the various crops represented by the WGA members. Puglia says he "will fight every day to finally get us an ag labor solution through Congress," but in the meantime he knows he needs to foster the kind of ingenuity that will build machines to replace the large farm labor crews needed to plant and harvest these crops.
"This just begs for a technological solution to automate as much of our industry as possible," he continued.
Food safety is another of his front-burner issues that he says: "if the industry does not do something bold and meaningful to address, we will have those solutions legislated for us."
Through this idea, Puglia said the industry retooled the marketing agreement used for research and promotion into something with enforceability that regulators could agree to as both sides work together on food safety solutions. Along those lines, WGA is working closely with the Food and Drug Administration to study the various e-coli outbreaks and how that manifests itself in leafy greens.
"We're trying to develop the science that pinpoints where that e-coli is coming from," he said.
Science currently suggests that irrigation water may be a source, which he says, "begs the question: how is it getting into the water?"
"There's an immense amount of scientific work going on to answer those questions," he continued.
Irrigation water availability is yet another in a long list of issues Puglia and WGA staff are working to address. He says he remains committed to advancing California's water supply agenda and that of farmers throughout the West.
Puglia looks forward to the day when the ag associations and farmers can all pull together to address common solutions to their common challenges that include water, labor, and regulatory reform. It is why he likes the open-source philosophy behind the ag tech center in Salinas, and why he believes associations need to set aside their turf wars and "pull together on the same rope."
He cites an agreement between Western Growers and California Citrus Mutual to highlight farmers on social media, and a partnership between WGA, the California Farm Bureau Federation and the Agricultural Council of California to raise money to beat back a proposition on the November ballot that many in agriculture say will financially devastate the state's multi-billion dollar agricultural industry.
"Let's join together, raise money together and put out a common message without worrying about who's going to get the credit," he said.