Yuma, AZ, grower-shipper Robby Barkley of Barkley Ag Enterprises was elected chairman of the board of the Western Growers Association at its 84th annual convention held Nov. 9-11 in Las Vegas.
Mr. Barkley, who grows winter vegetables in the Arizona desert, succeeds outgoing Chairman Kevin Andrew, chief operating officer of Sun World Inc. in Bakersfield, CA. In his state-of-the-year address, Mr. Andrew cited the progress made toward solving California's water crisis as one of the highlights of his year at the helm, and discussions about water and the historic package of water bills recently signed into law in California dominated the three-day event.
Passed a week earlier on a rare bipartisan vote by both houses of the California Legislature after an all-night negotiating session in which the Western Growers Association played a major role, the water bill package set the stage for a very upbeat convention. One of the convention seminars was devoted to the "Politics of Water," and WGA President Tom Nassif extracted an endorsement for the accompanying water bond from political action committee breakfast speaker Meg Whitman, who is campaigning to be the state's next governor.
Stephen Patricio, president of Westside Produce in Firebaugh, CA, who has been a longtime participant in the effort to address California's water shortage issues, moderated the water seminar.
The passage of the five-bill water package marked the first time the California Legislature has passed such a comprehensive approach to the problem in a half century, though it has taken shots at it many times in between. Mr. Patricio explained the mechanics of the bills, which have a stated dual purpose of restoring the ecosystem in the California Delta and creating a reliable water supply that includes additional storage. The linchpin of the effort is an $11.4 billion bond that needs voter approval and is scheduled to be put before the electorate in November 2010.
That ballot in one year will feature the California gubernatorial race. Among the front-runners is Ms. Whitman, the former chief executive officer of eBay. She is seeking the Republican nomination for the post and has been for the past nine months. Ms. Whitman initially chaired former boss Mitt Romney's run for the Republican nomination for president and then co-chaired the California effort for the McCain-Palin ticket. And, in fact, at one point she was rumored to be on Sen. McCain's short list for a running mate.
During the PAC breakfast, the longtime business executive preached job creation, reduction in government spending and improving public education as her three-plank platform. In the question-and-answer period that followed, Mr. Nassif specifically asked if she would support the passage of the water bond, which is expected to be a very tough battle, especially if the economy is still depressed. The business executive said that the water package was not perfect and that the size of the bond was large, but she did endorse its passage.
During her talk, Ms. Whitman expressed great support for the agricultural industry and pledged that as governor she would be a big supporter of the industry. In fact, she believes agriculture will be one of the main suppliers of the jobs she will seek to create. California has an unemployment rate topping 12 percent, which she said was the third or fourth highest in the country.
The convention also featured a seminar on new technology and an off-the- record give and take between the supply side and procurement side of the equation. The new technology seminar spent quite a bit of time discussing the voluntary Produce Traceability Initiative and how grower-shippers can comply with its milestones. The consensus was that the tools are available to provide traceability, and they are improving and getting less expensive all the time. One panelist suggested that in the not-so-distant future, those along the distribution chain will be able to use their Blackberries, iPhones and similar devices to scan barcodes.
The off-the-record seminar featured two retailers and a foodservice operator discussing the various aspects of their businesses. In a lively exchange with the audience, the procurement specialists discussed their operations and the various factors that go into their buying and merchandising decisions. While grower-shippers discussed their concerns and some of the unique challenges and costs they face, there was also much grower-shipper concern expressed about the cost of complying with various mandates ranging from audits to traceability to food safety.
The convention also featured the presentation of the WGA Award of Honor to longtime member, director and grower-shipper Steve Martori of Martori Farms in Scottsdale, AZ. Mr. Martori was cited for his tireless service to the industry, often as a behind-the-scenes expert but who is just as readily available to present the agricultural viewpoint in a public forum.