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Western Growers flexes political muscle with new Washington, D.C. lobbying office

The specialty crop industry is poised to slice its first-ever piece of funding from the federal farm program pie (2007 farm bill) to the tune of several billion dollars.

More than 120 specialty crop organizations nationwide, including a plethora of Western-based groups representing 350 specialty crops, are avidly awaiting the expected financial sliver. The federal funding would combat invasive pests and diseases, boost children's consumption of fruits, vegetables, and nuts, and expand state specialty crop competitiveness projects in the 50 states.

The organizations banded together under the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance (SCFBA) to realize the desire for federal dollars to assist the U.S. specialty crop industry. The convincing effort demonstrates the political powerhouse status advanced by the specialty crop industry in recent years.

The Western Growers Association (WGA), Irvine, Calif., is a member of the SCFBA. As its own entity, the specialty crop association has exercised political savvy to achieve the organization's pro-specialty crop agenda.

Well-known in the crowded halls of the California Legislature in Sacramento, the WGA in spring 2007 flexed its political muscle even further by establishing a lobbying office in Washington, D.C. While WGA's Executive Vice President Matt McInerney led the D.C. office in the first days, the WGA in September hired respected Washington insider Cathleen Enright to lead the group's Capitol Hill charge.

Produce industry leaders discussed the WGA's entry into full-time federal lobbying during a workshop at the 2007 WGA annual meeting in November in Maui, Hawaii.

Panelists included: WGA President/CEO Tom Nassif, Irvine, Calif.; 2007 WGA Board Chair Steve Patricio, Firebaugh, Calif.; Tom Stenzel, president/CEO, United Fresh Produce Association, Washington D.C.; Bruce Taylor, 2007-2008 chair, Producers Marketing Association, Newark, Del., and founder, chair, and CEO, Taylor Fresh Foods Inc., Salinas, Calif.; and Mike Stuart, president, Florida Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, Maitland, Fla.

Is WGA's entrance into federal produce lobbying a help or hindrance for the produce industry?

“It was interesting what the reactions were when we announced we were going to open a Washington office,” said Nassif as workshop discussion commenced. “A lot of people thought it was wonderful. Some said it would be a turf war between United Fresh and Western Growers and really won't serve the best interest of the industry.”

Steve Patricio, 2007 WGA board chair added, “We'll now have a nameplate, a face, a door, and a phone number where anyone can get a hold of Western Growers anytime.”

Tom Stenzel of United Fresh piped in with his take on the WGA's full-time foray on Capitol Hill.

“We may not always agree on strategy or issues, but there is no room for suspicion or distrust between our organizations. Let's work together for the betterment of our industry,” Stenzel said.

Government relations advocacy is a core value at United Fresh. The original United association, the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association (UFFVA) founded in 1904, conducted its first lobbying venture in Washington, D.C. just one year later. United's first office was located in Denver, Colo., and then moved to Chicago and eventually to Washington, D.C.

In 2006, the original UFFVA merged with the International Fresh-Cut Association to form today's United Fresh Produce Association. United's board represents about 1,200 member companies that are mostly growers, shippers, and processors.

The group's lobbying efforts are member driven, Stenzel said. Since the WGA office opened, “An increased understanding of the two organizations has resulted,” Stenzel said.

From the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) perspective, Bruce Taylor became chairman of the board during the group's Fresh Express Summit in Houston, Texas in October 2007. Taylor is the founder, chairman, and CEO of Taylor Fresh Foods Inc., Salinas, Calif.

Western Growers has a Washington, D.C. presence, “Because of Tom Nassif and his capability and experience in Washington in the past. Western Growers finally has a credible voice that knows how to navigate Washington,” Taylor said.

Taylor posed the question — Are the WGA's Washington efforts a duplication of PMA and United's efforts?

“After two and a half years of looking at it, the answer in my mind is no. If any of those groups were to go away, you would still spend the money to replace the effort they were making,” Taylor said.

PMA's efforts are aimed at building coalitions that are meaningful to PMA's entire membership. That's different from what the WGA Growers should be doing, Taylor said. United is building coalitions that are heavier on the production side (supply chain). The WGA should defend and promote the issues near and dear to the hearts of the growers and shippers in California and Arizona.

One lobbying voice for the entire produce industry on Capitol Hill is impossible, Taylor added. The success of each voice should include coordination on larger issues like the farm bill. Without that coordination, individual efforts on large issues “blow up.”

“We came to the farm bill with a big picture focus. If we understand we're not going to get all we want in either of our associations but together we can get something, that's pretty incredible. I think we're all better off.”

Enright, the WGA's vice president, federal government affairs, hit the ground running this fall as the face and outspoken voice of Western Growers on Capitol Hill.

As deputy assistant U.S. trade representative with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Enright negotiated bilateral and multi-lateral agreements with U.S. trading partners that opened or restored access to U.S. agricultural commodities. Among the agreements was moving California-grown citrus into South Korea, and California almonds across India's borders.

Enright's USDA tenure also included the resolution of more than 30 phytosanitary trade barriers impacting U.S. farm commodities. At the U.S. State Department, Enright served as a policy analyst on international treaties dealing with biotechnology.

“No one organization can help ensure that what comes out of that sausage policy-making machine (Washington) is going to be good for Western Growers members and the specialty crop industry across the country,” Enright said.

When the farm bill is tucked into bed, Enright hopes the SCFBA will avoid extinction. Together the groups could converge next on environmental, air quality, and conservation issues facing the specialty crop industry.

Enright's aspirations for WGA D.C. include tackling a broad array of national and international issues. Western Growers can serve a leading role and partner in the Doha round of World Trade Organization talks underway in Doha, Qatar. The Doha development agenda could include renegotiating international rules for agricultural trading, including subsidy and export enhancement rules.

“Once the rules happen, bilateral horse-trading starts … That's where I hope Western Growers can have a role in that dialogue along with our colleagues in the specialty crops industry,” Enright said.

Western Growers also could dabble its political toes in dumping and price discrimination issues, as well as competitive losses due to export subsidies from other countries.

The WGA has nearly 3,000 members who grow, pack, and ship 90 percent of the fresh fruits, nuts, and vegetables grown in California and 75 percent of the same commodities in Arizona.

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