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The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the availability of $22 million in grants to help citrus producers fight Huanglongbing, commonly known as citrus greening disease. This funding is available through the Specialty Crop Research Initiative Citrus Disease Research & Extension Program, which was authorized by the 2014 farm bill and is administered by USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

"Since 2009, USDA has committed significant resources to manage, research and eradicate the citrus greening disease that threatens citrus production in the United States and other nations," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a press release. "Thanks to the continued, coordinated efforts between growers, researchers, and state and federal government, we are getting closer every day to ending this threat. The funding announced today will help us continue to preserve thousands of jobs for citrus producers and workers, along with significant revenue from citrus sales."

USDA has invested more than $380 million to address citrus greening between fiscal years 2009 and 2015, including $43.6 million through the SCRI CDRE program since 2015.

HLB was initially detected in Florida in 2005 and has since affected all of Florida's citrus-producing areas. A total of 15 U.S. states or territories are under full or partial quarantine due to the detected presence of the Asian citrus psyllid, a vector for HLB. Those states include Alabama, American Samoa, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Guam, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Texas, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

USDA has employed both short-term and longer-term strategies to combat citrus greening. Secretary Vilsack announced a multi-agency coordination framework in December 2013 to foster cooperation and coordination across federal and state agencies and industry to deliver near-term tools to citrus growers to combat Huanglongbing. The Huanglongbing MAC group includes representatives from the USDA Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, USDA NIFA, USDA's Agricultural Research Service, Environmental Protection Agency, state departments of agriculture from California, Florida, Texas and Arizona, and the citrus industry.

The HLB MAC group is charged with quickly putting practical tools and solutions into the hands of producers, allowing them to remain economically productive while longer term solutions continue to be developed. The group invested $20 million into more than 30 projects over the past two years. The funding supports projects by universities, private industry, state and federal partners. Today, growers are benefiting from the use of thermotherapy, soil acidification, biocontrol and other tools funded through the first round of HLB MAC investment. The HLB MAC Group is now considering the best use of an additional appropriation from 2016 of more than $5 million and more information on the HLB MAC Group's work can be found here.

Last year, the University of Florida and Washington State University received NIFA support for research on growing the putative pathogenic bacterium in artificial culture, which will greatly facilitate research efforts to manage HLB. Another project at the University of Florida will develop bactericides to reduce or eliminate pathogen populations in citrus trees, with the goal of recovering fruit production in orchards affected with HLB. Research at the University of California will use virulence proteins from the pathogen to detect its presence before symptoms appear and to develop strategies for creating citrus rootstocks that are immune to HLB. Information about all of the projects funded to date can be found online.

NIFA will give priority to CDRE grants projects that are multistate, multi-institutional, or trans-disciplinary and include clearly defined ways to communicate results to producers. Successful applicants will be expected to engage stakeholders to ensure solutions are commercially feasible. Projects should also include an economic analysis of the costs associated with proposed solutions. Based on consultation with the Citrus Disease Sub-committee of the National Agricultural Research, Education, Extension & Economics Advisory Board, only applications that deal with the HLB or its management will be considered.

Donald J. Sorani of Shallotte, NC, died April 13 after a brief battle with cancer. He was 80.

Mr. Sorani was born and raised in Oakland, CA, and owned and operated Richmond Produce Co. in Richmond, CA. He developed his passion for produce by joining his father, Joseph, in the family business in 1968 and took over ownership in the early 80s.donald

Mr. Sorani was a major wholesaler in the San Francisco Bay area as he supplied the Fry’s Food Stores and several other small chains and independent grocers. Mr. Sorani sold Richmond Produce Co. in 1988 but stayed connected to the industry, re-entering as Hilltop Produce from 1990 to 1994.

In his semi-retirement, he assisted the buying team at Andronico’s Community Markets in Berkeley, CA, and lent a hand selling at AMEX Distributing in Tubac, AZ.

Later, Mr. Sorani moved to Shallotte, closer to family where he offered his services to Lowe’s Market.

Mr. Sorani was an avid duck hunter and sports enthusiast. He was preceded by his wife, Patricia, and is survived by his children, Mike Sorani, Maria Stello and Mark Sorani.

At Wegmans Food Markets, families are buying more organic foods every year as sales of organic produce have increased annually by double digits. Customers often cite environmentally friendly organic farming methods, which don’t use synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides, as a key reason for purchasing.   weg

“When we talk with customers who buy organic produce about why they choose it, they often give several reasons,” Bill Brauchle, Wegmans organic partner farm merchant for Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New England stores, said in a press release. “Some think organic produce tastes better, and many talk about what they see as the environmental benefits.”

More growers across the country are devoting acreage to organically farmed fruits and vegetables, and as the availability has increased, the price for organic has come closer to that of conventionally grown produce, Brauchle said.

It was clear by the early 2000s at Wegmans that customer appetite for ultra-fresh organic produce grown near the stores was very strong, said Amy Cimino, Wegmans organic partner farm merchant for New York stores. “Everyone loves the freshness of vegetables harvested just hours before you buy them, and that means those vegetables must be grown nearby. We began by talking internally about what we could do to satisfy that appetite.”

Wegmans approached the challenge from several directions. In 2007, the company opened Wegmans Organic Farm as a real-life laboratory for trying out the best organic farming methods and product varieties. The farm overlooks Canandaigua Lake in New York state’s Finger Lakes region and the harvest helps supply three Wegmans stores in Canandaigua, Pittsford and Ithaca.

At the same time, the company encouraged its grower partners who were already supplying stores with fresh produce to transition more acreage to organics.

“We wanted to develop and share best practices with our grower partners, so we could learn together what worked well and which varieties were popular with customers,” Cimino said in the release. “By working as partners with growers like Mason Farms in Williamson, NY, and Spiral Path Farm in central Pennsylvania, we could make it a ‘win’ for customers who wanted more regionally grown organic produce and a ‘win’ for the growers who could count on a market for their crops.”  

One way to make local farms more economically sustainable is to make the land productive nearly all year round, not just during the warmer months.  In the Northeast, that means growing crops in the late fall or early spring that tolerate very cool temperatures, such as baby leaf greens. “We’ll have greens such as baby kale, baby spinach, baby romaine, baby field greens, and arugula by mid-April, in time for Earth Day,” said Brauchle.

By Memorial Day, he believes, the first cherry tomatoes of the season should be ready for harvest.  All of these will be organically grown.

In its stores, Wegmans makes the farm-to-fork journey a smooth one by placing “organic ambassadors” in the produce department from May to November. These ambassadors find out which harvests will be arriving soon and they gather ideas from Wegmans’ culinary team about delicious, easy ways to prepare those items. Then the ambassadors pass along those dinner table ideas to customers and listen to feedback about what customers like and want most.

“Customers like the transparency of knowing where their food comes from, how it was grown,” said Cimino, “and they are happy to be trying out new ideas at the dinner table. Our grower partners benefit because they have fresh information about what our customers like and want more of — and they plant accordingly, knowing that there’s a reliable demand for what they are growing.”

Sustainability is an important focus at Wegmans, said Brauchle, and the emphasis on organics is a natural fit. “We are always looking at how we do things and asking if there are better, more earth-friendly ways of accomplishing our goals. Our commitment to sustainable practices applies to hundreds of different practices across our company, from recycling to packaging to energy use. But when it comes to growing food, we believe that over the long term, organic farming methods are best for the Earth and best for preserving the fertility of the soil.”

Great weather, good markets and advantageous holiday timing all point to an excellent situation for the marketing of crops from the Coachella Valley for this spring and early summer season.

Located about 130 miles southeast of Los Angeles and only a few miles from Palm Springs, the Coachella Valley agricultural district is an integral part of the patchwork of California growing regions that help the Golden State provide a steady supply of many different fruits and vegetables throughout the year. For the months of July, August and September, daytime temperatures can easily top 110 degrees and approach 120, making this region inhospitable to field-grown crops during that period. But other times of the year grapes, watermelon, sweet corn, Bell peppers and grapefruit are just a few of the crops that thrive, especially in the spring and fall.

Table grapes have long been a mainstay for the Coachella Valley, with production typically starting in early May and lasting as close to the Fourth of July as weather allows. Changing weather patterns for the last few years have meant an April start for grapes, which some are calling the effects of global warming and others are saying is merely a few-year anomaly from normal patterns.

In any event, this year saw grapes being harvested in April once again, as they were in 2014 and 2015. Steve Root of East West Unlimited LLC, a native of the area who has been growing grapes here for more than two decades, said prior to these three years he had never seen April harvesting before. He’s not quite ready to call it the “new normal” but it might be. Root, like many others interviewed, said the late timing of this year’s Memorial Day (May 30) will help the industry get a great promotional boost from that holiday. Though the grapes are a bit earlier than they are traditionally, it still will be around May 10 before volume is in the promotable realm. That means the May 27 start to the Memorial Day weekend will be perfect for heavy shipments and lots of retail advertising for grape-infused picnics and barbecues.

Nick Bozick, president of Richard Bagdasarian Inc. in Mecca, CA, agreed calling the late Memorial Day date a “bonus” for this year’s grape crop.

The grape crop is typically only marketed in a seven week window with many growers not even in it that long. A holiday right in the middle of the season, populated with promotions, should clearly boost demand.

Tony Bianco of Desert Fresh Inc. in Coachella, CA, concurred, noting that the holiday timing was perfect. If Memorial Day falls too early, sometimes the demand for volume comes too early and the industry has a lot of post-holiday marketing to do.

Mike Aiton, director of marketing for Prime Time International in Coachella, CA, is also looking for a lot of good May ad support for the colored peppers that his firm specializes in. But Aiton said it was the marketing conditions earlier this year that are probably the biggest factor in that equation. He noted that peppers have been in a demand exceeds supply situation for much of the first quarter of 2016. As such, there have not been promotable supplies. Aiton said by mid-May that situation should have rectified itself and there will be plenty of peppers on the market to support promotional pricing.

In discussing the future of the Coachella Valley, Bozick of Bagdasarian is bullish about its grape growing potential. He said there are many new varieties being given a look and the right find could boost demand. Bozick said new plantings have been going in and boosting acreage though not significantly. If a new variety was found to be worthy, he said there is still lots of good grape-growing land that could increase the area’s production.

Unlike in other parts of California, the Coachella Valley — in spite of its desert environment and minimal annual rainfall — does not have a water supply problem. The valley is mostly serviced by the Colorado River, which has its genesis in the Rocky Mountains in its namesake state. This past winter, like most winters, the Rocky Mountains had a lot of snow and the Colorado River, which runs from that state southwest through Utah and Arizona before straddling the California/Arizona border on the way to Mexico, has plenty of water. Even when most of California was in a drought situation over the past four years, Coachella Valley growers had most of their waters needs adequately taken care of.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has imposed sanctions on two produce businesses for failure to pay reparation awards issued under the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act. As a result, IXE Agro USA LLC and Fresh Mex Produce Inc. are currently restricted from operating in the produce industry.

IXE Agro USA LLC, operating out of Sparks, GA, has been restricted for failing to pay a $12,284 award in favor of a Florida seller. As of the issuance date of the reparation order, Alejandro Garcia, IXE Trading Ag, Northstar Distributors LLC, and Alexander Salgado were listed as members of the business.

Fresh Mex Produce Inc., operating out of Houston, has been restricted for failing to pay a $7,280 award in favor of an Arizona seller. As of the issuance date of the reparation order, Maria Luisa Loaiza and Osualdo H. Rios were listed as the officers, directors, and major stockholders of the business.

USDA is required to suspend the license of a business that fails to pay PACA reparations awarded against it as well as impose restrictions against those principals determined to be responsibly connected to the business when the order is issued. Those individuals, including sole proprietors, partners, members, managers, officers, directors, or major stockholders may not be employed by or affiliated with any PACA licensee without USDA-approval.

In the past three years, the USDA resolved approximately 3,700 PACA claims involving more than $66 million. Its experts also assisted more than 7,100 callers with issues valued at approximately $100 million.