Dennis Nuxoll is vice president of federal government affairs for Western Growers.  He spoke with Agri-Pulse recently on the top issues the fresh produce association is facing in 2020.

Western Growers represents more than half of the nation’s fruits and vegetables and three-quarters of all the tree nuts. Its members operate in more than a dozen states and several foreign countries, though their base farm must be in California, Arizona, Colorado or New Mexico. The conversation was edited for brevity.

1. What are the top priorities for Western Growers this year?

We look forward to an active 2020.

We finished 2019 with both the vote on immigration in the House and then the vote on trade. We expect both to be hot topics this year as well.

On trade, we want to see if we can capitalize on phase two for both Japan and the China deal.

With respect to Japan and trade more generally, one of the things that we are most interested in is SPS (sanitary and phytosanitary) standards. We tend not to have as many problems on tariffs

In the Japanese market for years, you get the product in there and it just sits on the dock, because they're inspecting it for some pests or disease that doesn't exist. That is going to be the focal point and why we're actually excited about Japan phase two.

The President has said he wants to do bilaterals because he thinks he can get more. Well we want more than was done in (the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP) on SPS. We actually want to start solving problems. TPP was setting up a better process to solve problems. We supported TPP and wanted to pass TPP, but we're here three years later and we don't have TPP.

There'll be a version of that for China. We don't know yet whether we'll have the opportunity to do that. But if there is, that would be our focus. It's also our focus in South Korea. Our tree nut guys have also had those problems in Europe.

On immigration, we plan to capitalize on the historic House vote. It’s the first time since 1986 that the House of Representatives has passed an immigration bill that helps the agricultural sector.

We are in a full-on crisis mode on labor, across multiple sectors within agriculture – certainly the produce sector, the dairy sector, all of indoor ag. Most of my guys for example, are 30-40% light on their crews. The labor crisis is real and it is shutting farms down. We are going to push the Senate to the wall to do something next year on immigration, because we all have this that same crisis.

2. What’s next for food safety?

We have reoccurring food safety issues. That is a topic we have been engaged on since the spinach outbreak in 2006.

Part of the problem is we have millions of people being served fruits and vegetables. For 99.9% of them, there are no problems. But the 1% is a big deal. We all strive to be perfect, but we don't operate in a lab setting.

One of the things we want to do is work with FDA to accelerate traceback and exclude clean, healthy product more quickly.

We have done better. In 2018, we had the Thanksgiving romaine outbreak. There was a similar timeframe in 2019, but it was more limited and we were able to identify it was from Salinas. The bags all have stickers now that tell you where they were grown.

3. What are you watching with water issues?

We have been very supportive, for example, of a bipartisan bill in the Senate that (Colo. Sen. Cory Gardner and Calif. Sen. Dianne Feinstein) have done on water. We would like to see that bill pushed forward. We're working to get an equivalent bill in the House off the ground as well.

That may have a nexus with the reauthorization of the Water Resources Development Act this year. That is an opportunity to tackle some of these water needs that not just all four of my states but the entire western United States experiences. The Colorado River Basin, for example, is projected to hit some of those threshold peaks that require mandatory cuts in water. That is expected either this year or next.

We think the Drought Contingency Plan will help with that. But we are right on the edge.

For the last two years, we've actually had enough water in the west. But about five years ago, it was more important than immigration. We didn't need the labor because we didn't have water to actually plant crops

4. How has Western Growers been engaging in the tech space?

We are thinking about research proposals for the Farm bill implementation.

We run a research incubator in Salinas with 60 small companies. We're networking with our farmers to test out technology. We have a venture capital fund. When we identify promising companies, we’re able to get them to scale. And then we have another research center with the University of Arizona that identifies mature technologies and how they can be applied to agriculture.

We're a couple years into the Farm Bill and that'll be a big push. There are a couple programs we helped nurture in the Farm Bill. Now it's really the time to push.

We made a decision about five years ago that we're going to spend some of our own money to make sure the research is focused on the needs that we have as producers.

5. What are the latest challenges with traceability?

We have pushed (the Food and Drug Administration) fairly aggressively.

We had Frank Yannis (the FDA deputy commissioner of food policy and response) talk to our board. Our board members told him our producers have scanning technology where you can identify which field coordinate a bag of kale was harvested on. We do not understand why the FDA can't figure out how to trace this back. Yannis said they have to integrate all this technology and set standards.

Last year on Thanksgiving, we lost a billion dollars. We want to figure out ways to accelerate that stuff down that curve.

The other thing we are always interested in is that last mile. When that product leaves our possession, one of the questions to be asked is if that information is being preserved up the chain.

6. What are your thoughts on the water standard for the Food Safety Modernization Act?

We actually think the FDA has done a fairly good job on water. Not all of our ag associations agree.

They have acknowledged they don't understand the space. They have had field hearings galore around the country and multiple evolutions of the standard.

We think the standard should be customized. You can't use the same standard for lettuce and citrus. It does need to be customized for the risk profile of specific crops.

In the research space, there is an interesting intersection. Right now, the only thing you can really use to clean water is chlorine. If we use chlorine to clean all of our irrigation water for the next 10 years, and that water is spread out in our fields, what does that do to the soil composition of the field. We probably need to be thinking through other technology FDA will accept that cleans water and gets rid of E. coli, salmonella, listeria, etc.

USDA will be involved in that I suspect, as well as land grant universities. EPA will be involved, because you have additives sprayed out into the environment. Then FDA will have to acknowledge whatever product we're choosing has the efficacy to actually eliminate that.

So that is actually a complex problem. One of many in this food safety space.

7. How are your grower members describing the economic outlook?

The trade uncertainty is certainly impactful, China especially and India as well.

Vegetable crops tend to be on the lower end on the export scale to those countries. Fruits and tree nuts tend to be more actively exported to those locations. The fruit sector had widespread negative impacts as a result of the tariff wars, which are hopefully over. The tree nut sector was also very negatively impacted. My pecan guys, for example, are devastated and bleeding as a result of China. Several other countries grow pecans and we have been replaced.

California grows about 80% of all almonds. So, we have been impacted. We think there's been transshipments going on, but it's not entirely clear. When Hong Kong becomes the number five exporter of almonds on Earth, that seems a little odd.

In 2018, a number of my growers in the tree nut sector said to me they were slowing some of their tree replacements. I did not hear guys talking about getting rid of trees. We actually cut trees during the drought in California five or six years ago.

If this had gone into year three, I think we would have seen people actually scale back a little bit in the orchard sector because of trade.

But on other sectors the domestic economy is going well. There's a reason the produce aisle is the first thing in the grocery store: It's the most profitable center.

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