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Lawmakers warn about battle for next farm bill

WASHINGTON — The next farm bill may not look like the hard-fought 2014 version as critics continue to advocate for splitting farm policy from food stamps in the next bill, lawmakers told attendees of the United Fresh Produce Association's Washington Conference, here.

Tom Stenzel, president and chief executive officer of United Fresh, kicked off the meeting with a promise of no government shutdown during the three-day meeting, a reference to last year's budget impasse that forced Congress and federal agencies to shut their offices during the Washington Conference.

Even though Congress plans to cut its legislating session short to campaign for the midterm elections in November, the two-day lobbying blitz sends a message on key issues lawmakers should take up later this year and next, Stenzel said.

"You've got to keep up the pressure," he said. Changes on key issues, such as immigration reform, might not come in the next few weeks, but "we expect it next year." United Fresh has organized the largest produce fly-in to visit House offices Sept. 9 and Senate offices Sept. 10.

Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA), a long-time champion on agriculture issues who received the Congressional Leadership Award Sept. 9 from United Fresh at the conference, said the last farm bill was "very difficult to get done."

Some believe the bill's overwhelming emphasis on costly feeding programs is overshadowing the farm legislation, and that's "unsustainable," Hastings said. It will be a political challenge to get the next bill through Congress, he warned.

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS), who followed Hastings at the breakfast session, said splitting the farm and food stamps would prove dangerous to the agriculture industry. Roberts acknowledged, though, he's heard predictions the massive, five-year 2014 farm bill "may be the last one."

Roberts criticized President Obama for announcing immigration reform would wait until after the elections. On the legislative front, however, Roberts said he doesn't expect to see progress on labor issues until after the election.

Hastings focused his talk on the need for Congress to reform the Endangered Species Act, which he blamed on water shortages that have damaged the agriculture industry.

4Earth Farms seeing major growth in organic division

4Earth Farms has recently expanded its organics division and has experienced double-digit sales growth in both sales and SKUs under the "4Earth Organics" label.4earth

"More and more we are seeing organic produce becoming mainstream," Mark Munger vice president of sales and marketing at Los Angeles-based 4Earth Farms, said in a press release. "While organics have always been a part of our product mix, over the past two years, we have put significant investments into branding, time, acreage and strategic growing partnerships. This has allowed us to develop consistent year-round supply on our organics items to meet this demand. Our goal is to continue to add additional organic items and achieve year-round availability on as many items as possible. We move closer to that goal every day."

4Earth Farms' organic sales increases are being seen in the company's retail, foodservice and in wholesale divisions.

"The combination of our recent '4Earth Organics' brand refresh and industry awareness of our organic expertise has really resonated with key decision-makers, which has resulted in significant sales gains," Munger added in the press release. "We have become a 'one-stop' organic solution for our customers and we are passionate about helping our customers capitalize on the growing consumer demand for organic fruits and veggies."

"Besides expanding to year-round supplies on key items, we are also working hard to bring new items to market," Anthony Innocenti, vice president of organic sales, added in the press release. "We are leading the industry with our cultivation of organic Kalettes -- the exciting new hybrid of brussels sprouts and kale. We are also expanding into additional programs, such as organic pineapples, sweet potatoes, and expanded vegetable items, all brought to market under the '4Earth Organics' label."

4Earth Farms sells over 100 organic SKU's including potatoes, pineapples, green beans, cilantro, spinach, kale, brussels sprouts, Napa cabbage, green and yellow squash, cantaloupe, avocados and a full citrus line.

"Anthony and his team deserve a lot of credit for all they have done to make our vision for 4Earth Organics a reality," David Lake, chief executive officer of 4Earth Farms, added in the press release. "This is the most excitement we've seen in our organics division since we started it 18 years ago, and I couldn't be more pleased."

Market Fresh Produce acquires century-old Harlin Fruit Co.

Market Fresh Produce, based in Nixa, MO, has completed its asset acquisition of Harlin Fruit Co., a 100-year-old produce business based in Monett, MO.

Market Fresh is in the process of renovating and upgrading the facility to serve as a repacking center that will enable the company to be regionally right in servicing Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. Reworking, ripening, cross-docking and redistribution services will also be offered.MFP MonettMarket Fresh Produce is in the process of renovating and upgrading its new facility, recently acquired Harlin Fruit Co., to serve as a repacking center.

Market Fresh officials plan to see rapid growth by increasing Market Fresh brand recognition across the Midwest.

Tyler Phipps, newly appointed general manager of the Monett facility, has very high expectations of how it will positively affect the Market Fresh organization.

With this new acquisition, Market Fresh will continue its path toward vertical integration and further its field-to-fork strategy.

"This is a very exciting time for our company," Steve Phipps, Market Fresh owner and chief executive officer, said in a press release. "Having a local facility will provide further research and development opportunities as Market Fresh continues to be one of the most innovative brands in the produce industry."

Jerry Sutton, former owner of Harlin Fruit Co., said the building will be a tremendous asset for Market Fresh and he is thrilled the facility is remaining in the produce industry.

"I'm sure Steve will make it go — and make it bigger and better." Sutton said in the press release.

Market Fresh offers full-line procurement and category management in tomatoes, potatoes, onions, sweet potatoes, peppers, avocados and kiwifruit. Through its national network of distribution centers, state-of-the-art vendor-managed inventory program, along with a proven track record of customer service, Market Fresh continues to help its customers eliminate supply-side problems and grow in-store categories.

GMO claims, market access debated at United Fresh Washington Conference

WASHINGTON — GMO-free claims on packages of stone fruit may cause confusion in the marketplace but if companies want to use that marketing technique they can, Cathleen Enright, executive vice president of Biotechnology Industry Association, told attendees in a standing-room only session Sept. 9 at the United Fresh Produce Association's Washington Conference, here.

Enright joined Randal Giroux, vice president of food safety, quality and regulatory affairs at Cargill Inc., to discuss GMO issues at the popular session, "The GMO Debate and Impact on Fruits and Vegetables."

Apples that contain a non-browning trait and potatoes engineered to result in lower acrylamide levels are two products coming to market, while a high-antioxidant purple tomato is years away, Enright said.

Despite the benefits of genetic engineering and its long history of safety, "food is easy pickings for the opposition," Enright told the group. Hundreds of advocacy groups have hooked their agenda on opposing GMOs by targeting processed foods and "Big Ag."

Giroux said sourcing GM ingredients means companies must be aware of consumer preferences that lead all the way to international markets.

"We need to find a balance between market innovation and market access," he said.

Companies moving towards GMOs should start a dialogue early throughout the supply chain, "so at the end of the day there are no surprises," he advised.

When the panel was asked the appropriate response to a stone fruit packer who opted to use the GMO-free claim, Enright said as an advocate for biotechnology she would not oppose companies that choose to market their products as GMO-free. But it should not be tied to food safety, she stressed.

When asked whether it caused confusion in the marketplace since other stone fruits are not genetically modified, she confirmed that it does, and this is one reason why the U.S. Department of Agriculture is working on a guidance for GMO claims.

Another question touched on fear among consumers about GMOs. Enright dismissed safety concerns, saying scores of livestock have consumed GMO feed for years.

"There haven't been as much as a sniffle associated with GM foods," she said.

But the final decision lies with the company. "My advice is to find out what your customers want," Enright said.

Organics Unlimited teaming with Four Seasons on East Coast distribution of GROW bananas

Organics Unlimited, a San Diego-based distributor of organic tropical fruit from Mexico and South America, is teaming with Four Seasons Produce to distribute its GROW organic bananas on the East Coast.

Four Seasons Produce, a full-service produce wholesaler based in Ephrata, PA, will receive and ripen the bananas and distribute to markets in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast.

"We want to be involved in supporting the communities in our banana-growing regions," Four Seasons General Manager Jason Hollinger said in a press release. "Our company is a major supporter of Fair Trade, but we realize that there are different ways to support the workers and their families. We've added GROW to give our customers another option for buying good, quality organic bananas that also have a way to give back to others."

Started in 2005, the GROW program has now provided over $1 million of support for programs in Mexico and Ecuador that promote education, dental, vision care and safe water.

"We're excited with the growth we've seen in the program and to have the GROW organic bananas available in the East," Mayra Velazquez de Leon, president of Organics Unlimited, said in the press release. "In the past few years, we've seen a major increase in interest from our customers, which has allowed us to expand funding to additional programs and promising young people."

From 2012 to 2013, GROW support increased by almost 150 percent. This year, GROW has raised over $200,000 in funds to help continue efforts in social responsibility. All funds come from the purchase of GROW bananas in the United States. Each box of fruit has a surcharge of 60 cents that goes directly to the fund. Proceeds from the funds go to Children International in Ecuador and Project Amigo in Mexico to help build opportunities for workers, their families and communities.

GROW retailers also benefit from the merchandising support available through the Organics Unlimited website. While materials are available year round, the celebration of GROW Month in September provides a special consumer focus that expands shoppers awareness of the added benefits of buying the GROW label. Of interest to consumers this year will be an increased selection of personalized stories about the impact that GROW has made on their lives.