Q: Last we spoke, an election was underway for the Arizona Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement Committee. Ballots with the nominees were sent to all the signatories of the agreement as of the September 27 deadline. [Editor’s note: The signatories as of September 27 were as follows below. Note that though Fresh Express had not signed by the deadline, Fresh Express has agreed to sign. It is possible for additional companies to sign on to the agreement under specific provisions once the Committee is formed:
You expected results after October 15. Are they in?
NOWLIN: The election ended on the 15th and election results have been sent out to all the signatories, Western Growers Association and Yuma Fresh Vegetable Association. The committee is made up of five people. The first group represents Yuma County; those elected are CR Waters of Duda Farms Fresh; Eric Schwartz of Dole; and Vicky Scott of Amigo Farms. The other two members can come from any area in Arizona, including Yuma County. They are Arnott Dunkin of Everkrisp Vegetables and Tom Russell, Pacific International Marketing.
SCHWARTZ: The other people on the committee with me are all good people, very knowledgeable of the industry. Tom Russell is an alternate on the board of the California Leafy Greens Agreement and attended every meeting so he knows what’s going on. Vicky Scott’s firm has been a big grower in Arizona, California and Colorado, so she is very well versed. CR Waters is a national grower in Arizona and California with a big operation in Florida. I’m not familiar with Arnott Dunkin but, being based in Arizona, his perspective will be important.
TUNIS: Since 96 to 98 percent of product grown in Arizona would come from Yuma, it made sense to have a greater representation from this area. In order to ship product out of Arizona, the company has to be licensed in Arizona through Jim Nowlin’s Citrus Fruits and Vegetables Standardization Advisory Council. We knew everyone licensed here, and then had to see if they wanted to be signatories.
Q: What percentage of growers/shippers have signed the agreement?
NOWLIN: During the 22-day initial signup period that ended on Sept. 27, 32 shippers signed up for the agreement. That constitutes approximately 75 to 85 percent of all leafy greens produced in Arizona.
TUNIS: But that didn’t include Fresh Express, which will be signing the agreement, so that percentage will increase. While a large majority of signatories are based in California, there are quite a few shippers in California that may not be licensed in Arizona.
Q: What happens now?
NOWLIN: The committee will have to meet to decide on the budget, an assessment, metrics they want to use for the food safety portion and other things of that nature.
TUNIS: The committee does have a lot to do, what standards and GAPs it is going to adopt and what will be in violation of those practices, in addition to deciding if it’s going to have a staff and/or contract with the Department of Agriculture for services, contract inspectors, or put together an intergovernmental agreement between the two states through the California Department of Agriculture.
Q: Are there any legal barriers in contracting across state lines?
TUNIS: My understanding is they want to make it as similar as possible to California’s Agreement, but there may be some differences based on some agricultural practices in Arizona as far as some standards. There are differences in Arizona law. One most notable example is that the elected Arizona Marketing Committee will make the decisions. And my understanding is that the California Marketing Board is only advisory to the California Department of Agriculture. If this Arizona Marketing Committee wants to work with Jim Nowlin, it will have to contract for his service.
This would be comparable to how the Iceberg Lettuce Research Council, which collects an assessment on cartons of lettuce and provides grants, contracts with the Arizona Department of Agriculture consultation training group. The Arizona Marketing Committee would be contracting with Jim Nowlin’s office.
I worked with Robert Shuler of Ryley Carlock & Applewhite, the attorney that represents WGA. We had to make sure the California Agreement met with Arizona law. Our statutes are a little different. We wanted to make it consistent because most of the companies are California-based that move down the coast as the shipping season shifts.
Q: Any feedback from Arizona growers? In addition to Fresh Express, do you know of any additional companies waiting to sign the agreement?
TUNIS: Some in Central Arizona did sign on. We had to cut off the signing period at September 27. I’ve heard that some others want to sign on, but they have to go through a required process to get approved. According to the agreement, additional signatories can be added with the approval of the assistant director [Jim Nowlin]. After the agreement is approved shippers can become additional signatories upon recommendation of the marketing committee and approval of the Department of Agriculture, but the Department is not required to follow the committee recommendation.
KNORR: Just about all major shippers have signed on to the agreement, and Fresh Express will be soon. There were some problems logistically with how the marketing agreement signup forms were distributed and mailed. Because there was such a short timeframe, signup has been difficult. This has moved along very quickly. We want to keep on the fast track for this season. WGA did try and facilitate the process. In Arizona, while we had a quote-unquote deadline, the way Arizona law is written, people can submit their signup forms at any time and it’s up to the committee’s discretion.
Fresh Express submitted their signatory form but it didn’t get in under deadline. Not all signatories are California-based. We do have some Arizona shippers but not that many. It’s not that Arizona shippers didn’t want to join — almost all did join — but from a statistical standpoint most are also shippers in California.
PEZZINI: The board will be seated and entrusted with the job of creating the program. We’re hopeful that they will essentially accept and develop the same policies and practices set forth in the California agreement, perhaps even contract for inspection and administration services.
HORSFALL: We haven’t been actively involved in the Arizona Marketing Agreement. We want to help as much as we can to lead to as seamless a program as possible between the two states. Now that members are elected, they have to consider how they want to move forward. The majority of those signed up are California companies as a tremendous number operate in both places. The California Marketing Agreement authority only extends that far. We are interested in assisting Arizona industry to create an agreement of its own.
McInerny: We don’t know of anyone pushing back or holding back on the Arizona side. The Agreement is moving forward with great consistency.
Q: Will the Arizona agreement mirror that of the California one? How closely with the metrics and requirements resemble each other?
SCHWARTZ: A lot of companies will assume we will take a cookie-cutter approach to Arizona. Procedural and administrative things, the slam dunk things we can cross over and save a lot of time and money. We will address differences, such as climate and varieties. A lot of times different water sources are used. It is realistic to expect we will go through the same process of understanding what differentiates Arizona from California. We have a road map now in California. Obviously time is of the essence. The Yuma season is five weeks away.
At Dole, we’re taking the same metrics and principles we use for growing in California and applying them to Arizona. Those just growing in Arizona won’t be surprised by these metrics. If you’re in the produce industry, you’re pretty well versed in the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement. The board will still go through the same process from electing the board chairman to setting up metrics. We don’t want people to think California growers are putting a stamp on it. Arizona growers will have more experience to add. USDA does handle the training, so there could be quick ramp up to get that up and running, these are decisions that will be made by the board. We have the model to work from, which will be much easier than having to start from scratch.
Q: I’ve spoken to some Arizona grower/shippers who did express some issues they hope will be considered in formation of the metrics. Because some of the comments could be perceived as unfavorable, they preferred their names be withheld.
ARIZONA GROWER/SHIPPER: “We don’t have cattle next to our fields or wild pigs. Our water and irrigation systems are different, as well as our climate. Not that a problem couldn’t happen here, but the California growers are trying to implement something so the government doesn’t step in. We adhere to good growing practices and are inspected by a recognized third-party auditor. We were following similar metrics for five or 10 years before the California agreement was implemented.
Product that comes from other states and countries like Mexico is excluded from these requirements. Other states don’t want to be associated with California. That’s where the big E. coli problems originated and they need to nip that in the bud, and that’s where the marketing agreement had to start. We’re just sitting tight and waiting to see what transpires.
ARIZONA GROWER/SHIPPER: We looked into it as hard as we could. We thought it was a done deal, and though the assessments should be different than California, it makes it hard for them to do different assessments. Documentation is not something we’ve necessarily done to that detail, but we’ve been doing soil and water testing for five years. We’re already testing for E. coli H:0157. We saw the writing on the wall a couple of years ago that companies will have to audit.
The requirements won’t be a big deal for us. There will be certain guidelines we’re not used to, and holding on to all the information will be an additional challenge. At the same time, we don’t have the same risk factors. We have no rain fall, no hilly topography, no roaming cattle or pigs. And our irrigation is different. Water temperatures are different because we’re in winter production.
Our understanding is that the Arizona Agreement will be exactly the same as the California agreement. In order for California shippers to ship certain commodities, they have to have the same metrics. We take the good with the bad. This agreement will be revamped over the years. And other states need to be on the same page; then imported product as well. We will have some growing pains.
KNORR: At the end of the day, we believe food safety is not a geographic issue; it’s a worldwide issue. We’re moving toward our goal of a federal marketing order affecting all 50 states. Moving to Arizona is another step in putting protocols in place to insure safety to consumers. Food safety affects all states. It’s not a regional issue. We believe ultimately that this will help all growers and producers of leafy greens. The way things have been, various shippers have a range of food safety protocols — five different audits, five different standards, one harder, one to a lesser degree. We’re hoping this will standardize and create a simpler process.
The Arizona agreement is crucial, and not just because it plugs a large and obvious hole in industry food safety efforts.
The process of adjusting the metrics to work in Arizona will have to be repeated all across the country if a national marketing agreement is to be implemented. So consider this a dry run.
And it won’t be easy. The problem is that there will be heavy pressure to change the metrics to accommodate local conditions. If this means identifying additional risks and putting in tougher standards, that won’t be a problem — although it may put pressure on California to mirror the tougher standards by changing its own metrics.
The real problem will come when growing areas all across the country claim they don’t need some of the California standards — buffer zones, testing, etc., because of their environmental conditions.
They may be correct, but if we acquiesce in a lowering of standards to accommodate local conditions, it is hard to see how we can ever have uniform standards consumers and regulators can have faith in.
The addition of Arizona to the “family” of marketing agreements will also raise the issue of consumer marketing. As long as Arizona was excluded, it was self-evidently ridiculous as it would have involved promoting a mark that consumers wouldn’t be able to find half the year.
Now we may wind up seeing a split between processors with regional plants — who don’t want to use the logo because they source regionally — and those California/Arizona-centric operations who might be fine with consumers looking for the logo.
Best of luck to the Arizona leafy greens trade on the occasion of the new Agreement and commendations to WGA and the California handlers for showing, in such a tangible way, that they know the food safety issues are still in the process of being solved.