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April 1, 2015

GROWER COLLABORATION: Western Growers Inks Deal to Represent Colorado on Federal Issues

In late February, Western Growers CEO and President Tom Nassif signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Colorado Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association (CFVGA) to form a strategic alliance between the two trade associations.

Members of CFVGA now have immediate access to Western Growers services and staff, and Western Growers is providing federal lobbying representation for the Colorado association.  “The collaboration is a natural allegiance for us,” said Nassif.  “We both represent the grower-shipper community and we have many of the same issues on the federal level.”

He added: “For almost 90 years, Western Growers has represented members from California and Arizona in Washington, D.C., when advocating the needs and concerns of fresh produce growers, handlers and shippers to federal government agencies and to members of Congress.  Today, we can proudly say that the voices of growers in Colorado will join ours when we go before federal leaders to discuss our concerns and advocate for solutions to our problems.”

The WG CEO said the additional representation will give the California-based organization more clout as it fights for production agriculture in the nation’s capital.  He noted that Colorado has two senators just like California and Arizona and now Western Growers represents those senators’ constituents.  He added that Western Growers will now have a direct line to the state’s delegation to the House of Representatives, as well.

Robert Sakata, who is president of the Colorado Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, and a longtime Colorado grower, said there are advantages for both organizations.  His firm, Sakata Farms, Brighton, Colo., has been a member of Western Growers for the last couple of years.  As such, he has participated in some WG-sponsored events, including grower lobbying trips to Washington, D.C.  “I have had the pleasure of getting to know Western Growers over the last few years having participated in fly-in visits to Washington, D.C., and other meetings,” he said.  “I think the knowledge and expertise of the Western Growers science and technology staff, especially regarding food safety issues and regulations, as well as from other staff on immigration reform and farm labor issues, will be of great benefit to CFVGA members.  Western Growers has been a great force on the national stage and we hope to add to their strength with our activities from Colorado as we share many of the same concerns.  My hope is that this will be the first step in building many long lasting friendships to help our growers.”

Sakata noted that on those lobbying trips, the WG contingent was able to get access to several Colorado congressmen because of Sakata’s presence.  “I am a constituent and they were willing to see us because of that.  Prior to that I didn’t know it worked that way.  This collaboration will give Western Growers access to more senators and representatives.”

In addition, the two associations will seek to work together on other mutually-beneficial programs and activities which will include opportunities for online informational and learning webinars.  The memorandum of understanding gives Colorado growers access to WG association services such as trade and commodity services and the insurance products provided by Western Growers Insurance Services.  Nassif called it a “win-win” collaboration.

The two-year MOU calls for Western Growers to provide membership to growers and allied members of the CFVGA throughout 2015 and 2016 as outlined in an exclusive strategic partnership agreement approved by both organizations.  CFVGA members gain access to Western Growers federal government affairs staff and resources as well as WG’s science and technology staff.  The agreement does not include Colorado state advocacy or other state activities.

The two associations will also promote one another through several marketing and communications tools and services, and explore other ways to collaborate over the next several years as Colorado is added to the Western Growers family.

The Colorado Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association was formed last year after several years of discussion.  Sakata, who was a founding member and is the first volunteer leader of the organization, said from time to time over the years the concept arose but it never got off the ground until last year.  He said water, labor and immigration issues convinced growers that they should form an association to represent them collectively.  He quipped that growers are an “independent bunch” but they put that inclination aside to come together under the umbrella of a fresh produce industry association.

As of the end of February, there were 150 members of the group representing growers and shippers throughout the state.  Sakata was especially pleased with the turnout at the group’s first annual meeting, which was held in late February when the MOU was signed between Western Growers and CFVGA.  “We were hoping to get 150 people and we got more than 260,” he said.  “It shows that there is a lot of interest in the association.”

Sakata said there were many potential members at the annual conference who had not joined CFVGA yet but were using the Feb. 25 conference as their foray into the new association.  He said the last year has been devoted to establishing the organization, creating a governance procedure, and putting a board of directors in place.  “There is a lot more work to be done.  So far everything has been done by volunteer leaders, but this year we plan to hire an executive director which should help us move things forward at a faster pace.”

Once the association was formed, CFVGA immediately became part of an alliance of Colorado agricultural associations that meets every two weeks in the state’s capital to discuss mostly state issues but also other issues of concern to all of agriculture.  While the meetings have been very helpful, Sakata said the association has been asked to take positions on some issues on which it has yet to formally develop a position.  “Even exactly how we are going to form positions hasn’t been completely hashed out,” he said.

But Sakata said the fresh produce industry is excited to have its own association and to be aligned with Western Growers.



Colorado’s Produce Industry


Colorado has a vibrant fruit and vegetable industry split along geographic boundaries.  As far as agriculture is concerned, the Continental Divide, which divides the state as well as the United States, splits Colorado into east and west sections and then the eastern half is split again between a north and south growing district.

Robert Sakata of Sakata Farms, Brighton, Colo., said the western slope produces tree fruit, including peaches, apples and pears, as well as being home to the well-known Olathe sweet corn deal.  The western half of the state has a northeast and southeast growing district.  The northeast is defined by the North Platt River while the southeast features the San Luis Valley region and gets its water from the Arkansas River.  Onions, sweet corn, and many other vegetables are the top crops in the northeast while San Luis Valley potatoes and Rocky Ford cantaloupes are the most well-known southeastern Colorado crops.

Sakata said, for the most part, growers only produce in one district as the growing seasons are closely aligned and it doesn’t make a lot of sense to move equipment and manpower for an extra week or two.

In general, he said the state produces the bulk of its fruits and vegetables from mid-July to mid-September, with some hardy items beginning a bit earlier and lasting a bit longer.

He said moving forward, Colorado is going to face many of the same challenges as California with regard to urbanization and decreasing farmland.  “By 2050, the population is supposed to almost double to nine million people and there are estimates that we are going to lose a half a million acres of irrigated farmland,” he said.

Though the state does get a lot of rain and snow, there is always concern about water in the long run.  “We are always looking for dependable water supplies.  ATM means a place to get cash in most of the country but here it means Alternative Transfer Method, and they are talking about transferring water rights.”

Sakata explained that the oldest water rights in the state tend to lie with agricultural users, and as urbanization continues, developers and politicians are eyeing those rights.  “Hopefully agriculture won’t lose its water rights.  That’s what we are worried about.”

But he said the number one problem for agriculture in Colorado is labor.  Workers used to follow the harvest from Texas to New Mexico and then through Colorado into Idaho and the Northwest.  “There aren’t as many people doing that anymore.  It is very hard to find labor.  I was talking to a grower the other day who could only fill one-third of his labor needs.  He only needs three workers but could only find one.  That’s about right.  We are in the same position.  We are only filling about one-third of the slots we have as well.”