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Produce associations form alliance on social responsibility

Fresh produce industry leaders from the United States and Mexico met Feb. 11 in Mexico City to formalize the International Fruit & Vegetable Alliance for Social Responsibility, also known by its Spanish acronym AHIFORES. As a demonstration of support for the new organization, Mexico’s Secretary of Agriculture Enrique Martinez y Martinez hosted the members of the alliance and appointed Under Secretary of Agriculture Jesus Aguilar as his liaison with the organization.

According to a Feb. 13 AHIFORES press release, its mission is to enhance the visibility of Mexico’s fresh produce industry’s long-term commitment to the integral development of farm workers as well as to actively promote industry-wide awareness and consistency in the implementation of socially responsible business practices.

Members include fresh produce associations and their key volunteer leaders from both the United States and Mexico who met and agreed on Nov. 14, 2014 to create AHIFORES.

The association's members represent 90 percent of Mexico’s fresh fruit and vegetable export volume, including top exports such as asparagus, avocados, berries, citrus, grapes, mangos, papayas and tomatoes, among others. The organization represents one of the first times such a broad array of associations and industry leaders have joined together to work on a common goal. Outside private and public sector experts will be invited to contribute as AHIFORES moves forward in executing its objectives.

“I was honored to be part of the groundbreaking meeting which included leading innovators in Mexico’s fresh produce industry," Alan Aguirre, president of Grupo Alta and interim chairman of AHIFORES, said in a press release. "Based on our collective experience and dedication to the responsible treatment of our valued employees, I am confident AHIFORES will play a significant role in inspiring, educating and advancing socially responsible business practices on Mexico’s farms."

The work of the AHIFORES reflects both the Mexican and U.S. members understanding that social responsibility is a process that requires continuous improvement and a long-term commitment. The strength of the organization lies in its extensive network of fresh produce growers across Mexico and experts in the field of social responsibility. That network will be invaluable in disseminating the best practices, educational programming and the information resources AHIFORES plans to offer.

“For years, leading Mexican growers have set new standards in social responsibility," Mario Robles, director of CAADES vegetable division and industry spokesperson for AHIFORES, said in the release. "Yet few have told the story of that commitment. It’s time that we share with consumers around the world the Mexican industry’s history of responsible treatment of their workers.  We are proud to be part of AHIFORES and look forward to contributing to the fulfillment of its mission."

AHIFORES’ U.S. spokesman is Martin Ley, president of Fresh Evolution LLC, based in Nogales.

Plot thickens in West Coast ports dispute

As a response to intermittent work slowdowns during labor negotiations at West Coast ports, the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents shipping lines and terminal operators, is refusing to pay overtime to longshoremen this holiday weekend. The move effectively closes the ports for four out of five days, beginning Thursday, Feb. 12 (Lincoln’s birthday, which is a port holiday) and continuing through the weekend.

The move is the association’s response to what it claims are union work stoppages and slowdowns that have caused crippling delays and devastating economic losses.

In a press release earlier in the week, the association stated that weekend and holiday pay rates command a premium of at least 50 percent of the basic longshore wage rate. As a result, working hours on those days would be paid at between $54 and $75 per hour for longshore workers and clerks, and between $77 and $92 per hour for foremen.

“[Pacific Maritime Association] members decided that they will not conduct vessel operations on those dates, paying full shifts of ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union) workers such high rates for severely diminished productivity while the backlog of cargo at West Coast ports grows,” the press release stated.

Association spokesman Wade Gates said, “Last week, PMA made a comprehensive contract offer designed to bring these talks to conclusion. The ILWU responded with demands they knew we could not meet, and continued slowdowns that will soon bring West Coast ports to gridlock. What they’re doing amounts to a strike with pay, and we will reduce the extent to which we pay premium rates for such a strike.”

There have been many calls from industry and government for an end to the labor impasse. On Feb. 12 at a Washington, DC, press conference a group of about a dozen West Coast representatives from Congress added their names to a growing list of people asking for swift resolution to the labor impasse.

Tom Nassif, president and chief executive officer of Western Growers Association, is on that list and issued a statement Feb. 12 calling for intervention. He said the conflict “is harming California’s exports of perishable fresh produce. This is of great concern for our state’s economy. In just the last quarter of 2014, the value of U.S. exports of fresh vegetables, fruit and tree nuts to major markets in the Pacific Rim region totaled over $5 billion.”

Gates of the Pacific Maritime Association said inbound ships have been waiting for up to two weeks for berth space because of the ILWU slowdown and then ships are delayed an additional week before being unloaded.

Nassif said that many produce suppliers are not even sending product overseas because perishable items cannot withstand these delays in loading.

“Western Growers has reached out to elected officials and regulatory agencies hoping to increase pressure on ILWU and PMA to bargain in good faith and to stop any work slowdown or lock-out, in an effort to get port activities back to as near normal as possible,” Nassif said.

He specifically called on “President Obama to become personally and immediately engaged to get both sides to end this dispute and quickly restore operations at our ports."

The contract between the 29 West Coast ports represented by PMA and the ILWU expired July 1. Work has continued under the old contract but work delays and stoppages have caused increasing problems for importers and exporters. In the port of Oakland, the third largest port on the West Coast, impartial observers say only about 75 percent of the normal number of ships are being unloaded on a typical day.

In 2002, after a port lockout closed all 29 ports, President George W. Bush did intervene and use the Taft-Hartley Act to reopen the ports and force a continuation of negotiations. Eventually a contract was signed. Some experts are saying that a complete lockout or strike is needed for President Obama to take similar legal measures.

California avocado season starts strong, 327 million pounds expected

California avocado season is getting under way, and the California Avocado Commission has updated its production forecast to 327 million pounds for its fiscal year 2014-15. CAC also announced that Timothy Spann has returned to the commission staff and now serves as research program director.

The commission reported a strong opening to California avocado season in support of select California retailers’ Big Game promotions.Tim-SpannAt the California Avocado Commission demonstration grove, CAC’s Research Program Director Tim Spann (right) explains the growth cycle of avocado trees to a visitor. California avocado volume is expected to build into March with promotable volume beginning in April.

“Some crop damage due to cold weather did occur around the New Year, but its impact is expected to be less than 5 percent of total production,” Tom Bellamore, CAC president, said in a press release. “We have been sampling the early season fruit and the appearance and flavor are outstanding.”

Spann, who has a Ph.D. in plant biology from University of California-Davis, served as CAC’s research project manager for two years before becoming an associate professor at Fresno State University. Previously he was an associate professor at the University of Florida in the horticultural sciences department.

“We’re very pleased to have Tim back on the Commission staff,” Bellamore said. “He is leading production research activities that support California avocado grower productivity and contribute to delivering premium-quality California avocados to the market year after year.”

 

Kwik Lok owner dies at 76

The fresh produce industry is mourning the loss of Jerre Paxton, owner and president of Kwik Lok Corp., who died from an apparent heart attack Jan. 25 in Seattle, where he had gone to attend simulcast racing at Emerald Downs. He was 76.

Mr. Paxton assumed leadership of Kwik Lok, headquartered in Yakima, WA, in 1968 following the retirement of his father, Floyd. The company is an innovator in the field of bag closures, and the locks are easily visible in fresh produce departments today.

In addition to his responsibilities at Kwik Lok, Mr. Paxton was a horse racing enthusiast and thoroughbred breeder. He created the Yakima Stallion Station, which was later renamed Northwest Farms in the early 1970s. The farm was recognized as Washington's leading thoroughbred breeder from 1984 to 1995. Mr. Paxton was a charter member of the Washington Racing Hall of Fame and was officially inducted in 2003.

His passion for horse breeding and racing was evident. In all, he bred 12 state champions and garnered 37 career stakes victories at Emerald Downs. Jockeys were proud to wear the red and black silks of the farm and remember Mr. Paxton fondly as a kind and generous man.

Mr. Paxton is survived by his wife, Debbie, and daughters Stephanie Paxton-Jackson, Melissa Paxton-Steiner and Kim Hagner.

Haggen outlines plans to convert 146 stores

Pacific Northwest grocery chain Haggen has begun the process of acquiring 146 stores as part of the divestment process brought about by the Federal Trade Commission’s review of the Albertsons LLC and Safeway merger. 

With this acquisition, Haggen will expand from 18 stores with 16 pharmacies to 164 stores with 106 pharmacies; from 2,000 employees to more than 10,000 employees; and from a Pacific Northwest company with locations in Oregon and Washington to a major regional grocery chain with locations in Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada and Arizona.

“This momentous acquisition is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rapidly expand the Haggen brand across the West Coast,” John Caple, chairman of the Haggen board of directors and partner at Comvest Partners, a private investment firm that owns the majority share of Haggen, said in a press release. “Now that the deal has closed, our team is focused on seamlessly converting these 146 stores to the Haggen brand over the next five months.”

The Haggen team, led by John Clougher, chief executive officer of Haggen Pacific Northwest, and Bill Shaner, CEO of Haggen Pacific Southwest, has outlined its plans to convert the stores. Under the settlement, the divestitures to Haggen must be completed within 120 days from the purchase of the first store.

Haggen will convert the stores moving from north to south, with a few exceptions. The first conversion began Feb. 12 in Washington. Soon after, another 18 stores in the state will be converted during February and March, with the final seven Washington stores scheduled in June. The 83 stores in California will be converted from March to May. The 20 Oregon stores will transfer to the Haggen brand throughout the months of March, April and May. The Nevada and Arizona stores will be the last to convert in the late spring. Each week, between one and 12 stores will be converted.

As the stores are transformed into the Haggen brand from the Albertsons, Safeway, Pavilions or Vons brands, each store’s employees will be invited to become Haggen employees. “Retaining the existing store employees was an essential part of the acquisition and we hope they all accept our invitation to join the Haggen family," Shaner said in the release. "These are great teams and these new employees will be an incredible asset to our growing company. Plus, these familiar faces will help ease the brand transition for long-time customers.”

The amount of time it will take for a conversion will vary store by store. Some stores can be converted within two days after the change of ownership, while others will take longer. Both interior and exterior signage will change at all locations. Clougher said, “We’re excited about the changes we’re making to enhance these stores, and we’re confident customers will like the new look, the new offerings, and their new full service grocery destination.”

Shaner noted how the store offering will change: “Haggen has built its 81-year-old business on providing excellent, locally sourced, fresh produce and high-quality meats and seafood. That focus will definitely be reflected in the new stores.”

As a full-line grocery store, Haggen will offer a core assortment that meets the needs of regular shoppers. Plus, they will supplement that selection with products that are locally relevant. “Haggen is still small enough to be very nimble and responsive to each store's customers," Shaner said. "What you find in a Bellingham store will differ from what you’ll find in a store in San Diego. Being locally focused is a core value of Haggen.”

The acquisition of the 146 stores by Haggen has been well supported by grocery industry partners. “We are incredibly grateful for key partners that have helped to make this acquisition a reality, including Unified Grocers, SUPERVALU and Charlie’s Produce,” noted Clougher.

Unified Grocers will be the primary supplier in the Pacific Southwest and a secondary supplier in the Pacific Northwest. SUPERVALU will be the primary supplier in the Pacific Northwest. Charlie’s Produce will be the primary and preferred supplier for produce for all Haggen stores. Haggen plans to announce many regional and local distributors in the coming months.

Additionally, Starbucks and Haggen have agreed to continue operating the 78 Starbucks stores located in Haggen’s acquired properties, with remodeling planned for these existing cafés. Haggen will also be adding cafés to other locations. Clougher said, “We are proud to be continuing and expanding our partnership with Starbucks - another great Washington company committed to building stronger communities."

Clougher added, “With the help of both our long-standing and new partners and employees, we are excited to offer our locally sourced produce and groceries, genuine service, and homemade quality to customers throughout Washington and Oregon and now in California, Nevada and Arizona.”