Bruce Taylor, president of Taylor Farms California Inc. in Salinas, CA, was elected chairman of the board of Western Growers for the next 12 months at the group's 88th annual meeting, held in Honolulu Nov. 10-13.
Taylor replaces Steve Barnard, president of Mission Produce in Oxnard, CA, who presided over this year's event, which included three days of networking, educational seminars, fascinating keynote speakers and several social events. Barnard, in fact, was one of the speakers at the luncheon event on Tuesday, Nov. 12, where he recalled a few of the big events during his year in office, but mostly left his term of office on a high note about the future.
He briefly discussed some of the pressing issues facing the industry, including continued lack of progress on immigration as well as a myriad of government regulations that make farming in the United States difficult. In fact, Barnard has experience farming in six different countries, and he said none put up more roadblocks to success than the United States.
He revealed that on several occasions he visited with the highest ranking agriculture official Peru who always asks what he can do to help Mission continue to expand its avocado acreage, which helps develop land and brings hard currency to the country. The avocado executive said he has never been asked that question by a government official in the United States.
Barnard spent most of his time at the podium talking about his good friend and business partner J.R. Simplot of potato fame, among other business entities, including frozen guacamole production with Mission. He told several stories about the very successful businessman, which led to his central theme that "the message is attitude."
Simplot, he said, was not afraid to lose or fail. "Keep getting up," Barnard quoted him as saying. "That's what separates the champions from the others."
Barnard advised the crowd of mostly growers and shippers to accentuate the positive and think about the great opportunities before them. "Don't get distracted by the flies," he said, speaking of the ancillary issues that make farming difficult.
Sharing the spotlight with Barnard during the event was former U.S. Ambassador John Bolton, who spoke of the need to keep the United States a leader around the world. He said both Democrats and Republicans have seemingly forgotten how important it is for the United States to maintain its leadership position. He said neither party is giving much airtime to international leadership as both concentrate on domestic issues. Bolton considers that a huge mistake that is not in the self-interest of this country. He became quite animated when talking about Benghazi and the terrorist murder of the U.S. Ambassador to Libya and three others 13 months ago.
Bolton, a frequent critic of the Obama Administration, maintained an air of bi-partisanship during much of his speech.
Also taking a relatively bi-partisan position was U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) who was the keynote speaker at the Political Action Committee luncheon a day earlier. Introduced as the "annoyer in chief of the Obama Administration" as chairman of the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee, he said he would have happily taken the same role during the Bush administration. He then ticked off numerous transgressions that have occurred by both presidential administrations that he has served in his 13 years in the House of Representatives. He indicated that the size of government is so large that it is virtually impossible for there not to be issues, which is why his committee is so busy. He did say that the response to the terrorist attack in Benghazi was woefully lacking and blamed administration officials for their lack of honesty when initially confronted with what they knew and when.
But Issa spent a good portion of his talk on an immigration bill he is preparing to deal with the 11 million aliens that are reportedly here illegally. It has become a foregone conclusion that comprehensive immigration reform is not going to happen this year and may be a long shot for next year as well. Instead a piecemeal approach may be the best option, and Issa's bill addresses one issue.
He is calling his bill the Alien Accountability Act, which he said is designed to give the vast majority of these aliens that are here for work or to join their families a path to legalization. He said neither the Senate version of immigration reform, which it has passed, nor the Republican concepts, which have not yet surfaced as a bill, address that particular situation.
Immigration issues were also front and center in a workshop devoted to the Affordable Care Act, also held on Monday. While a good portion of the discussion did center on the act itself and strategies to comply with it, Gardland Reiter of Reiter Affiliated Cos. in Santa Barbara, CA, talked about his company's effort to offer primary care to their workers, including the firm's many seasonal workers.
Reiter explained that this is going to become increasingly important as all the provisions of the ACA kick in. While that law will eventually require large employers to offer insurance for their workers or pay a fine, it also specifically prevents undocumented workers from participating in the individual insurance exchange markets.
Reiter said there will be a large gap in coverage for the workers who harvest the crops on a relatively temporary basis and are not documented. If they do not qualify for coverage by a large employer or if it is not offered, they will not be able to go to the exchange and get coverage. This could further exacerbate the labor shortage agriculture is currently dealing with, and will also lead to a less healthy workforce.
Reiter Affiliated Cos. have been offering this clinic-based primary care package to all of is workers on a voluntary basis for the past four years. The program has grown to be quite successful and currently about 60 percent of its workforce is taking advantage of it.
David Zanze, president of Pinnacle Claims Management, which is a Western Growers-affiliated company in the health insurance arena, discussed the details of an ACA-compliant, clinic-based health insurance plan that Western Growers Assurance Trust is offering to its membership. It is a relatively low-cost "silver level" plan (on the ACA grading scale) that will allow companies to provide health insurance to their field workers at a cost very close to the penalty the firm will pay if it does not provide insurance. That penalty is scheduled to kick in for large companies on Jan. 1 2015.
Also on the dais was Jon Alexander, a staff lawyer who has become Western Growers expert on ACA. He gave the group lots of dos and don'ts related to the law, but his overarching theme was that employers need to familiarize themselves with the law and start taking action with regard to how they are going to comply. First and foremost, he said they must begin to document exactly how many full-time employees they have in a 12-month period.
The main seminar during the Tuesday business meetings was a financial seminar that offered investment advice as well as an up-to-date look at the current economic conditions. All three speakers gave a relatively rosy assessment of the current situation and the foreseeable future, but each articulated a little different investment strategy.
Dennis Moon of U.S. Trust in Dallas said real assets, such as land, have become a favored investment strategy of the ultra-rich. This, he said, bodes well for agriculture, which is seeing the price of its land increase. Moon said that crop land prices are still reasonable in relation to return and there is still room for growth.
Erik Davidson of Wells Fargo Bank in Monterey, CA, advocated for diversity in an investment portfolio. He said investors should look at many different options, including having about one-third of their investment dollars in foreign investment alternatives. However, Davidson believes converting to cash is not a good investment strategy. He also is not a big believer in bonds, calling that a way "to lose your money safely."
Quoc Tran of Lateef Investment Management in Greenbrae, CA, remains a big believer in the stock market. He said despite 30 straight months without a correction, which is unprecedented, there is still room for good, solid growth.
His company employs a buy-and-hold strategy. They only own 15 to 20 companies at a time and do a great deal of research before picking a firm to invest in. They look for good growth, a company relatively immune to potential downturns in the economy and an undervalued stock. Currently they are heavily invested in companies that make their money on consumer discretionary spending, such as hotels and cable television. Tran said the middle class is growing worldwide, leading to increased consumer spending in those areas.