Food safety, pesticide drift, and Buy American act on the table at the USDA Fruit & Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee.

USDA needs to hear from you! And so do we.

By Molly Gleason

Last week I was sitting on a plane headed towards Washington D.C. for the first meeting of the Fruit and Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee (FVIAC).

The gentleman on the plane next to me struck up a conversation and asked about the purpose of my trip, and so I shared the limited details I had.

“The FVIAC is made up of 25 individuals from within the fruit and vegetable industry that are appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. Our role is to make recommendations to the USDA on the needs of the fruit and vegetable industry. This is my first time on the Committee, so I’m not really sure what to expect” I added nervously.

“Well the nice thing is you can always just sit back and let others do the talking and deliberating” he replied. He was trying to be kind, but whatever nervousness I felt at that moment flew out of my body. “I’m not really sure I’m that type of person,” I said. “I tend to have opinions.”

And 2 hours later I landed in Washington D.C., opinions at the ready.

Scenes from the first Fruity & Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee meeting of 2019 in Washington D.C.

The first two-day meeting of the FVIAC was spent meeting the other Committee members, electing an executive team, identifying our priority issues, and breaking into subcommittees to hash out the top concerns for each issue.

During the meeting I learned that the Committee hasn’t met in 2 years, so our role in making recommendations to USDA this year is especially important and long overdue. 21 of the 25 members on the Committee are brand new, which means we have a lot of learning to do together about each other and about how the whole recommendation process roles out. Far from being a downside though– I’m excited to be a part of a group that will bring fresh eyes to the concerns of fruit and vegetable growers.

“Fruit and vegetables” is a pretty broad industry, and our Committee represents everything from peaches to plaintains and portabello mushrooms to sweet potatoes. Apart from diversity of product our Committee also represents a diversity of interests. Members include producers, packers, processors, distributors and trade associations alike. To get the flavor of the Committee, we have representatives from:

  • The California Prune Commission which helps market over 104,000 tons of prunes (dried plums) both domestically and abroad. Did you know that Japan buys 98% of it’s prunes exclusively from California?
  • Titan Farms, the largest peach grower on the East Coast with 6,200 acres of peach trees and it’s own processing arm.
  • Seneca Food Corporation, one of the largest processors of fruits and vegetables in the nation. Their brands include Green Valley and Libby’s (where the majority of Illinois’s pumpkins ends up!). They also provide processed products for store brands (the off-label brands that you see, like Hy-Vee store brand or the Wal-Mart store brand)
  • FreshPoint, a division of Sysco Corporation, that is North America’s largest exclusively owned produce distributor.  

And then there’s me. I’m representing small-scale, diversified fruit and vegetable growers here in Illinois, where our average specialty crop farmer has less than 5 acres and is selling not to processors, distributors, or wholesalers, but directly to you– through farmers markets, road-side stands, and CSAs, with a smattering of farm-to-table restaurant sales thrown in the mix. The focus of our organization is not on foreign trade, or even really, on domestic trade, it’s on growing local food systems where communities can support the farmers in their area and vice versa.

As the only voice for farmers market producers, I’ve got my work cut out for me.

Scenes from the first Fruit & Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee meeting of 2019 in Washington D.C.

On the first day, the Committee discussed the top areas of concern facing our industry. I learned that at some of these meetings, like the National Organic Standards Committee Meetings, there are rallies outside the door and a vibrant public comment period. I suppose fruits and vegetables are less controversial so we didn’t experience any such displays, but we did hear from three individuals during the public comment period.

One of those individuals was there to discuss a loophole in the Buy American rule which mandates school districts to purchase products grown in the U.S. However, an exemption was included in the rule to allow foreign purchasing if there is a significant price difference between an American product and a foreign product. Distributors to school districts don’t always disclose when a product is not grown in America, so often times school districts aren’t aware when they aren’t following the rule. On top of that, many school districts use a third party to do their purchasing for them, so any savings from not buying American products doesn’t even go back to the school district, it goes to the third party. Finally, even if there was enough transparency for schools to easily identify American products, school districts don’t have to disclose when they choose not to buy American, so there is no accountability. The exemption basically nullifies the whole intent of the original law.

Another concern raised within the group was the classification of industrial hemp as a specialty crop. Many were concerned that if industrial hemp is classified this way, the majority of research funding (mostly through Specialty Crop Block Grants) will be allocated towards research for industrial hemp production– a valid concern given the excitement around this new crop which has tons of research potential.

Ultimately, the Committee settled on four broad subcommittees:

  • Trade (this is where the Buy American issue landed)
  • Labor
  • Food Safety
  • Production (this where the hemp vs. specialty crop research funding issue landed)

Although I wanted to sit on all of the subcommittees, it wasn’t possible to be in 4 places at once and I narrowed my focus to the Food Safety and Production committees– knowing that the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and pesticide drift are two of the top concerns of Illinois growers.

All of the committees were tasked with creating an initial mission statement and outlining top issues. We’ll have two follow-up phone calls to continue to discuss and research the issues, and we’ll meet again in person in August to report back on the final recommendations and discuss and approve them as a group. These recommendations will then be submitted to Secretary of Ag Sonny Perdue for review.

I spent most of my time in the Food Safety group, trying to soak up as much as I can about the Produce Safety Rule, farm inspections and exemptions, the definition of a farm, advisories on romaine lettuce, and why plantains shouldn’t be subject to the Produce Safety Rule. We spent a lot of time as a group trying to figure out where we can make reasonable and actionable recommendations to the USDA. With FSMA passed and the comment periods for rule-making now closed, discerning where we can take action will be key to whether our recommendations will have any effect.

Although I was unable to spend much time in the Production subcommittee, I was excited that the head of the Committee was concerned about pesticide drift and volatilization issues as well. We were both afraid that we might be alone in bringing up this issue, and we were both excited to learn that we were not! The Production group identified pesticide drift, product labeling, and research funding for specialty crops as top issues.

Now the real work of the Committees begin. We have just over two months to bone up on our issues and make our final recommendations.

Although my role is to represent Illinois fruit and vegetable growers, as the only representative of small producers, I feel like that role has now expanded somewhat. If you’re a farmers market vendor, a farmers market manager, a small fruit and vegetable grower, or are part of an organization anywhere in the nation that represents these producers, I’d love to hear from you. Especially if you have thoughts or information on the following topics:

  • The Produce Safety Rule
  • Water regulations (related to FSMA)
  • The Buy American Act
  • Pesticide regulations
  • USDA approval of genetically-modified seeds
  • Specialty Crop Block Grants and research funding

I know you’ve got opinions too. Help me share them. Get in touch with me at molly@ilstewards.org.