Ian LeMay is taking over the role of president for the California Fresh Fruit Association (CFFA) during what he describes as a difficult time for the industry. LeMay spoke with Agri-Pulse on the unprecedented challenges of shifting water supplies, a labor shortage, tariff impacts stunting trade and the state’s higher minimum wage law. LeMay has served four years as CFFA’s director of member relations and communications. Before CFFA, he advised Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., on ag, water and transportation issues as his district staff director.

Current CFFA President George Radanovich is stepping down to work on ag labor policy in Washington, D.C., and LeMay will officially take over on June 1. The conversation has been edited for brevity.

1. What are your top priorities as president of CFFA?

Our top priorities are to continue our long-standing representation of the permanent fresh fruit commodities to California. The California Fresh Fruit Association has been around for 83 years and we have a strong board of directors and a committed executive committee that has long represented the immediate issues for the industry.

When I'm forecasting going forward, I don't see the issues changing. We continue to deal with the shortage of labor here in California. The permanent fresh fruit commodities that we represent are heavily dependent on an abundant and capable workforce — that we don't necessarily have. Working with our federal legislators on a comprehensive immigration reform will remain a priority of ours, as well as working with our state representatives to understand that they have legislated strong labor regulations for the state of California. Our industry complies with those and has created a good working environment for our employees. We are concentrating on bringing the needed fresh produce to the consumer that they're demanding.

Water will continue to be a primary issue as well. We are a year out from the implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which, for commodities like ours, it will have an impact. We continue to monitor the progression of the groundwater sustainability coalitions that are being formed and around the state. We continue to engage with the state — with the likes of the Department of Water Resources, as well as the Natural Resources Department — to make sure that they have a plan with these groundwater sustainability plans submitted here in the next year. [We’re also engaging with them on] how they can best work with the growers of California to try to continue to allow us to do what we do best. That is to grow the freshest and safest fruits and vegetables that the state is currently growing.

And so that's the major issues that we're currently working on. We're collaborating with other ag associations and water agencies to identify ways in which that we can expand and maximize our water infrastructure system here in California. We hope to be making more progress in that arena here in the next couple of months.

2. How have fresh fruits been hit by the recent tariffs and what do you hope to see in a trade aid package?

The tariffs and the ongoing trading negotiations have definitely impacted our members. Over one-third of California plums are exported to China. We continue to dialogue with the administration to make them understand the impacts that our growers are seeing. California table grapes and figs, as well as a few of the other commodities that we represent, have also been impacted by the loss of that market.

In the intermediate, we would like to see a continuation of the facilitation program implemented last year. We would like for the administration to continue to concentrate on the commodities that are being directly impacted by the tariffs.

It's no secret that here in California, a portion of our business portfolio is what we can export to foreign markets. China has been one of those markets that we've seen growth for our commodities. We would like to see it continue to be a market.

3. You said "these have not been easy years" for your industry. Can you explain?

Yes, we have seen a contracting labor force throughout the western United States. Our 13 permanent fresh fruit commodities that we represent here at CFFA are heavily dependent on a present labor force. As we've seen that reduction, it's become harder to do business. California has also made some changes in terms of raising the minimum wage and changing available hours that our employees can work. These are changes to the business model that some other states that grow similar commodities don't necessarily have to deal with. As our industry has to change our business model, we want to make sure that we remain competitive, both in a domestic and in a foreign marketplace.

We are not that far removed from drought conditions here in the state. While some commodities in California can choose whether to plant or not plant, our members need to have an available water source to keep their commodities and their permanent plantings alive. We continue to deal with these ongoing water negotiations and the discussion as to whether we need to invest in additional water infrastructure. Our members are quite impacted.

4. What are some trends in California that you're watching that may affect the industry?

We definitely want to see a continuation and a potential growth of the [Air Resources Board’s] FARMER program [for upgrading ag equipment]. Our members have definitely seen a benefit there.

In Sacramento, we continue to see an ongoing dialogue on the plant health materials that our industry is allowed to use. Trying to find a balance in policy in Sacramento is a top priority for our association. We understand that the government has to deal with multiple priorities and multiple constituencies, but we would hope that they find and see a value in what the members of the California Fresh Fruit Association, and California agriculture as a whole, bring not only to the citizens of California, but to citizens of the United States and the global community. I believe that our government and the state would be hard pressed to find better farmers who are more concerned with safe practices in farming than they are here in California. We hope they'll be willing partners to allow us to continue to do that.

5. Anything else you would like to add?

I'm just excited for the opportunity. I appreciate my board's decision to allow me to serve in a new capacity and I'm excited for the opportunity to advocate for California agriculture.

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