Bringing back the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Fruit and Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee after more than a two-year absence has been a goal for industry lobbyists.
It also is a goal for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Charles Parrott.
With about a year on the job as deputy administrator for the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, Parrott said he wants to establish the committee as soon as possible. Parrott succeeded Bob Keeney, who retired as AMS deputy administrator in October 2012 after more than a quarter century at the USDA.
The industry advisory committee — which last met in March 2011 — has been inactive since the USDA announced it was seeking nominations for a new version of the 25-member committee in mid-2011. The USDA never appointed members to the committee, which started in 2002. The group advised agriculture secretaries on nutrition programs, farm bill funding, commodity purchasing, Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act regulations and other industry issues.
The committee disappeared for a time, Parrott said, because of an internal review of the agency’s nearly 100 advisory committees. New AMS Administrator Anne Alonzo agrees with the need for the committee, Parrott said. ”We are going to make that happen very shortly,” he said.
Industry lobbyists have been asking USDA to bring the committee back, said Laura Phelps, president of the Washington, D.C.-based American Mushroom Institute.
“It is an excellent strategy for USDA to stay in touch with what is going on on the ground in the produce industry,” said Ray Gilmer, vice president of issues management and communications for the United Fresh Produce Association. “We would be among the first in line to submit some names for consideration.”
As a 17-year veteran of the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act program, Parrott in 2001 become Keeney’s associate deputy administrator of AMS. Those years with Keeney allowed Parrott to step into the deputy administrator’s post with no learning curve, Phelps said.
Parrott helped oversee the integration of the fresh and processed products divisions into an integrated Specialty Crop Inspection Division, effective in Oct. 2012. That integration will allow consolidation of five fresh and processing offices and perhaps more to come.
“Over the course of the first five years, that will save us more than $1 million,” Parrott said.
Advising Canada on ways to establish financial protection for produce sellers will be on the agenda for the next year, Parrott said.
“We’re very supportive of that because ultimately that will be very good for our shippers here in the U.S. who sell into Canada,” he said.
The AMS may evaluate how it can help promote fruit and vegetable consumption, he said.
“I would be interested in developing a partnership with one of the associations to look for ways that we can help promote consumption of fruits and vegetables because it benefits the public and it certainly benefits our stakeholders too,” he said.
School lunch boost
Parrott said the AMS is also increasing purchases of fruits and vegetables for the school lunch program because of new nutrition standards for school meals. USDA fruit and vegetable purchases for schools increased from $289.8 million in fiscal year 2012 to more than $443 million in fiscal year 2013, according to the department. USDA purchases only account for about 15% of the food that goes in school meals, he said.
USDA purchases of fresh fruits and vegetables totaled $144.1 million in fiscal year 2013, with processed fruit and vegetable purchases that year tallying $299.4 million.
Parrott said the USDA is trying to buy more value-added fresh produce for school use.
“The sliced apples work very well because even for school systems that don’t have tremendous refrigeration capabilities, it is generally a product they can handle, with a shelf life of about ten days,” he said.
Carrots in 2 ounce bags are popular, with ideas to expand purchases for seedless grapes and orange slices.
“Because schools have to provide a larger serving of fruits and vegetables, they are looking for additional ways to do that,” he said.
Parrott said the USDA is always interested in expanding the pool of companies that are able to sell to the government.
“We’re not limited,” he said. “We need big, but we need small too.”
Industry demand for USDA good agricultural practice audits have gone up significantly in the past several years, he said, with more buyers requiring them.
USDA GAP and GHP audits totaled 3,578 in 2013, up from 1,587 audits in 2008.
“We’re looking for ways to ensure that even small producers can get GAP certified without too great an expense or difficulty so they can have access to all these markets as well,” he said.
Parrott said the USDA AMS is increasing its outreach to the industry via Fruit and Vegetable Program News and through web seminars. Particularly, he said there is always a demand for information on how the PACA program works and how to comply with the law. Spanish language seminars have found high participation, and the he USDA is planning a first-ever Korean language PACA web seminar for January because of a significant number Korean-language produce operators in the U.S., Parrott said.
Parrott said the October government shutdown was challenging for AMS, but Parrott said the AMS wanted to go through that period with the least disruption to its customers and employees. “I think we made it through very well and we were fortunate in that so many of our programs are user-funded and didn’t have to shut down,” he said.
Parrott said he isn’t focused on the possibility of future budget problems for the agency. “Ultimately what I want is to make sure our programs mirror what the industry needs and so if the industry changes and their needs change, I want to make sure our programs are responsive to that,” he said.