Several hundred farmers and ag stakeholders gathered in Las Vegas last week for the Western Growers annual meeting. In addition to breakout sessions and the AgSharks competition, keynote speakers included Political Strategist Karl Rove, Admiral William McRaven; and Author Jennifer Sey.

Agri-Pulse caught up with Puglia after the meeting to discuss his perspectives on how his members are grappling with a wide array of challenges and approaching innovations.

The following conversation has been edited for brevity.  

1. Let’s start with some good news for a change. What aspect of your annual meeting were you most excited about? 

The most exciting aspect of the meeting was the AgSharks competition, and not just the result. Given the expectation that a quarter of a million dollars would be invested and $6 million was invested — that was stunning and amazing. But this continues to underscore the excitement and optimism that can be generated by innovations in technology.

I don't know that anybody was thinking two to four years ago about a purely compostable biodegradable packaging material for nursery pots and for the film that we use on our farms, etc. So, for Nutjobs to win the competition and win it in such a dramatic and major way inspires everybody in the room, whether you're a grower who will directly utilize or benefit from that technology or not. It exemplifies the creativity, the capital investment that's pouring into the specialty crop industry around ag tech and the good that can come from our role acting really as kind of a magnet to draw the parties together and enable those conversations, enable those partnerships, and help launch them.

2. So many of your board members are innovators to begin with, but given the magnitude of some of the challenges your growers face, was it difficult to convince them that competitions like this and significant investments in ag tech were really needed?

No, not really. This is really the full blossoming of Hank Giclas’ vision. More than anybody else, 15 years or so ago, Hank spoke about the opportunity to attract startup capital and entrepreneurs to the specialty crop industry — knowing that we have so many crops and so many challenges for each of those crops. He knew it would be very, very difficult, but that was the point. And here we are many years later with a $6 million investment in a startup that has incredible opportunities to remove one of our fairly significant sustainability challenges, which is our use of and dependence on plastic.

Our board long ago, enabled and embraced Hank’s vision and told us to go forward, and don't do it halfway. I think it is a blossoming of a good decision and I am so proud of him. Unfortunately, he left us, but had he been there, he would have stood in the back of the room and refused to accept any credit for all of this specialty crop technology investment. But it all traces back to him.

(Giclas served the Western fresh produce industry in various capacities with Western Growers over three decades from 1990 until he retired as Senior Vice President, Strategic Planning, Science & Technology in 2020. He died in August 2022.)  

3. You have all of these new innovations coming online in the future, but a lot of ongoing challenges with water and labor. For the near term, what’s on your radar for new, emerging threats? 

I don't really see any new emerging threats. On water, we're at a really critical pivot point here in the next several weeks for Colorado River water users. The Bureau of Reclamation has been slow to be very serious about acting to preserve water in the Colorado system for 2023, the current water year. But maybe with the midterms in the rearview mirror, they will get more serious.

But I think there's a lot of trepidation, a lot of concern, that water users on the Colorado system will be challenged to stay united in the way we voice our position to the Bureau of Reclamation and Department of Interior. But again, I hope that, with the elections behind us, the Bureau will get a little bit more serious. So, that is an area of deep concern.

For growers in the San Joaquin Valley, it is unfortunately status quo — which is the grinding down of productivity based on reduced surface water supplies and now restricted access to groundwater. You take away surface water deliveries in the San Joaquin Valley and you tell growers you can't overdraw from the groundwater basin. Well, they don't have any choice and you've also given them no ability to replenish that groundwater basin.

California has made decisions that set the San Joaquin Valley on a course to economic despair and social despair that comes with faltering economies. It is reversible. It's not too late. We're about to get socked with a bunch of major winter storms. That's a good sign — if California is fortunate enough to have a wet year. We still have them, we just won't have as many of them. But if this is one of them, that we're about to enter, we damn well better do a better job of holding water behind our dams longer and we damn well need to do a better job of moving floodwater when it shows up to areas that can benefit from groundwater recharge. A lot of that is farmland in the San Joaquin Valley. We haven't done either of those things in the last wet year, which was 2019. So we’ve got to get smarter about that. Or we're consigning an entire region and millions of people to a pretty dim economic and social future.

4. Switching over to labor issues, there was some discussion at your meeting with Karl Rove about the prospects for Senate passage of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act during the Lame Duck session. Are you optimistic about that at all?

I don't know if optimism would be the right word. I'm pragmatically optimistic and what that means is, I'm a student of history. I know that major legislation rarely moves in a lame duck session. You'll get must-pass legislation like the Defense Authorization Act, or continuing resolutions to spend — things like that. So, it's not out of the realm of possibility. We will push and are already pushing.

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We have colleagues in the specialty crop industry in other parts of the country who really have the greater hand to play with Republican senators both who will be returning and those who will be lame ducks and leaving in January. That's really where the push needs to occur, on the Republican side of the aisle. If that push were to occur, something good can happen.

I think the lame duck session presents the best opportunity in the remainder of this year before we have a new Congress and things may be even tougher. We who have been leading the charge for the Farm Workforce Modernization Act have an obligation to push as hard as possible all the time. And that includes in a lame duck session.

So, you know, man the battle stations, we gotta go.

5. Some Republicans are still insistent that there will be no forward movement on immigration reform until the border is secure. Your thoughts?

I completely understand that sentiment. We have an obligation to educate members of Congress that, as regards to the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, it is as imperative of a need — if we are to secure a domestic food supply. Our failure to provide a stable and legal workforce for produce growers in the U.S. is only hastening the flight of produce-growing operations beyond our borders to Mexico and elsewhere. I view that as much of a national security imperative as securing the border. Naturally, I would have that perspective — given the role I have. But even as an objective observer, I think you would say that having energy independence, having food independence, and food security goes hand in hand with border security. So I would argue that both are equal imperatives and both can be accomplished at the same time and should be.

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