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DEL MAR, CA — How world issues affect western agriculture was one of the themes that played out during the first day of the Western Growers Association’s annual meeting, here.

Association President and Chief Executive Officer Tom Nassif, who once was the U.S. ambassador to Morocco, used his keynote address to give the audience a little insight into the cultures and political issues in the Middle East and Northern Africa. While it is widely known that the region controls a great deal of the world’s supply of oil, but Mr. Nassif relayed how the area is also rich in natural gas. “And do you know that 77 percent of the world’s supply of phosphates is in Morocco?” he said.

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The passing of the gavel from 2011 Western Growers Association Chairman of the Board Tom Deardorff of Deardorff Family Farms to Mike Jarrard of Mann Packing Co., the incoming chairman.

That country has had a very stable government for years, but the association executive encouraged attendees to imagine the impact on agriculture if those phosphates were suddenly unavailable.

His slide show included visual representations and cultural insights into countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Libya, Lebanon, Iran and Iraq. Besides serving as ambassador to Morocco, Mr. Nassif was chief of protocol for President Ronald Reagan and had several diplomatic assignments in that region. His knowledge is vast, and during his speech, he offered some background into the Muslim faith and discussed the differences between Sunnis and Shiites, the realities of the much-maligned Sharia law (based on logic and the Quran) and how politics and religions are intertwined in these regions.

For example, in Lebanon, the legislature by law is divided evenly between Christians and Muslims, the president has to be a Catholic while the prime minister has to be a Sunni and the speaker of the house has to be a Shiite.

Mr. Nassif discussed the Arab Spring and the importance of the region to the United States strategically. “We have military bases all over the region, which are very important for both our protection and the protection of the counties in that region, most of [which] have small military forces.”

Though many of the Arab states express fear of Israel’s nuclear capability, Mr. Nassif said that it is Iran that they really fear. Iran is not, he said, an Arab state; its people are Persian, not Arab.

That luncheon session dovetailed perfectly into an afternoon workshop moderated by former California Department of Food & Agriculture Secretary A.G. Kawamura of Orange County Produce. Mr. Kawamura said that many of the natural resources upon which agriculture depends that Mr. Nassif highlighted are in jeopardy because of the turmoil in the Middle East. “In agriculture, unpredictability is not our friend,” he said.

He added that much of agriculture revolves around producing outcomes that are predictable, and that is especially true with the inputs the industry uses, such as energy.

A panel of experts discussed various strategies in which each is involved to help the United States become less dependent on oil for its energy.

First up was Ernie Shea, president of Natural Resources Solution LLC, who is involved in the 25 x ‘25 project, which aims to have 25 percent of the U.S. energy needs satisfied by renewable resources (solar, wind, biomass, etc.) by the year 2025. He said that agriculture is going to play a big role in this program because biomass is expected to be the fuel that will satisfy about half that goal.

Mr. Shea said that a progress report reveals that the country is on track to reach its goal. In 2004, when the initiative was launched, about 6.3 percent of the country’s energy consumption came from renewable resources. By 2010, that number had grown to 8.3 percent. Mr. Shea said that if the same percentage of growth occurs over the next decade-and-a-half, the goal will be met.

Reporting on a specific use of biomass in the agricultural sector was Steve Gill of Gill Onions. His family-farming operation has taken a number of steps to cut its energy use, but the most impressive is the development of the first-ever facility that turns onion waste from the company’s processing facility into methane gas and then eventually into hydrogen fuel cells. Mr. Gill said that the operation saves energy while disposing of waste in an environmentally friendly way.

Two panelists — Derek Yurosek, formerly of Bolthouse Farms, and Ryan Park, who is a partner in REC Solar — discussed the promise solar energy offers to production agriculture. Mr. Yurosek, who now is working with Cottonwood Ag Management LLC, was at Bolthouse when the firm installed a 2,000-acre solar project in 2007. To better use its available water, Bolthouse had switched to a center pivot irrigation system, which created unused corners on every field. Those corners were used for the solar installation, which maximized land use and energy savings.

Mr. Park discussed the roughly 7,000 solar installations in which his firm has been involved over the last decade. While there is value in huge solar farms, REC Solar sees a lot of opportunities for packingshed and cooler operators to turn open space of the roofs of those facilities into solar collection fields. The company has worked with many different agricultural entities on that type of project and also has installed many different size systems on retail operations ranging from the relatively small footprint of a Fresh N Easy store to a huge Ikea warehouse in Central California.

Mr. Park said that the cost of solar installations continues to come down and has dropped significantly in the past decade because solar panels are much cheaper.

Robert Tse wrapped up the panel discussion by putting a global imprint on it. Mr. Tse, who works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development, said that on Oct. 31 of this year, the world population reached 7 billion individuals. By 2050, it is expected to reach 9 billion. He said that this population is also increasingly urban, and, as such, consumes energy at a higher rate. He said that reliance on fossil fuels for energy has to decline while use of renewable resources must increase. He believes this is a big opportunity for agriculture, not only in growing biofuel crops such as corn and sugar beets, but also through the use of ag waste as Gill Onions is doing.