I had the chance to chat on March 29 with Barry Bedwell, president of the Fresno-based California Grape and Tree Fruit League.

3:00 p.m. Tom Karst: I’m interested in your take in the marketing order development with California peaches and nectarines, with the referendum vote falling short of what they need to continue.

3:01 p.m. Barry Bedwell: I certainly feel that there are going to be needs of the industry that still must be addressed. While this unfortunately didn’t go through, it does not take away some of the areas that certainly growers are still going to be looking for. Those include things outside pure marketing and promotion. They certainly include (issues like) how do you coordinate research, how do you coordinate certain trade activities, how are you going to deal potentially in crisis management situations, how are you going to get the statistical information you need. My hope is that I can sit down with Gary (Van Sickle of CTFA) somewhat in the near future and talk about some of those things and say how can we best meet the needs of the tree fruit community as we move ahead. Just because vote didn’t pass doesn’t mean that there is still not going to be these needs out there.

3:03 p.m. Karst: Do you think your group would be in a position to help fulfill some of those needs?

3:03 p.m. Bedwell: I think logically, yes. I think we have to look at it. Given our work in various areas, we need to see how we can best and efficiently manage these issues for the benefit of our members and the industry. We are already involved, for instance, in managing the export program to Mexico. What can we do for other areas of tree fruit? We are already involved in certain areas of research and trying to coordinate some of that. This will be a conversation for our leadership, our executive committee and board of directors, but first I want to get a good idea of how this will play out over the next four to six months and then determine what is the best and most efficient course for the industry.

3:05 p.m. Karst: Has the (CTFA) indicated how long the peach and nectarine orders will continue?

3:06 p.m. Bedwell: From what I have heard it will take a matter of months. I have heard anywhere between three and six months. I guess my other thought is, what is going to happen with the plum marketing order? Will they continue to go ahead and administer that or will something change there? I think that we want to try to understand what services may be needed out there and what we can do to assist.

3:07 p.m. Karst: Are you involved with administration of the Market Access Program export promotion funds now?

3:07 p.m. Bedwell: Only from a supportive role. We understand in terms of both fresh table grapes and tree fruit, the Market Access Program has been very important to expanding those markets, and this is something we have to take a look at and what is the best way to utilize resources to assist these growers. That’s really what it comes down to; how we best assist these growers.

3:08 p.m. Karst: This is just one added dimension for your organization right now; what else are you working on right now?

3:08 p.m. Bedwell: We always go back to list of priorities, our top ten list. It has been relatively consistent over the past few year. Certainly labor issues are the top priority. A major concern for our membership is legislation seemingly introduced every year in California having to do with card check. Card check was again introduced by the president pro tempore in the Senate Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) and this version seems to go out of its way, quite frankly, I think in taking away the rights of the farm employees to a secret ballot. It is amazingly intrusive in our view. One of the things were are facing in California is that the governor has been very clear and very much focused on the budget issue and said he would not address these other public policy issues until afterwards.
The other thing at the federal level that is very concerning to our members is that their seems to be this attention on E-verify and employer enforcement sanctions. We have made it very clear while we support border security and making sure that we have the right documentation, to do so before there is some type of way to make sure our workforce is legal, is simply not going to work. In a state like California, given our labor needs, H-2A under its current form is simply not an alternative.

The other things we are very concerned with that during a time of reduced resources at the state and federal level, we seem to be dealing with more and more invasive species. More of the treatment protocol is falling on the growers themselves. Just last year, we had European grape vine moth, light brown apple moth, melon fruit fly, all of these things came about at a time when markets were challenging enough but when you become potentially restricted by quarantines it becomes very very concerning. In California, the whole invasive species goes hand in hand with a growing public reluctance to treat in any large scale fashion some of these pests. Our ability to treat as we have done in the past has been restricted, although we have a governor who lived through the days of the Mediterranean fruit fly in the 1980s and understands the potential damage. It is going to be more of a resource issue now, so we try to prevent the introduction of these pests in our ports of entry. These are always, always big concerns for us.

3:12 p.m. Karst: How is the grower economy right now for grape and tree fruit growers?

3:13 p.m. Bedwell: I think overall the fresh table grape people are again doing okay because they are in a situation where their growth is more controlled. You are dealing with only 500 table grape growers. Forty years ago, there were 1,500 growers (producing) 20 million boxes and now we have 500 growers growing about a 100 million boxes. Even at that, we still have primarily small and medium size growers. There is still growth in both export and domestic for table grapes. They are continuing to look at new varieties, but it is controlled. There is a discipline within the industry that does a good job. I think the California Table Grape Commission deserves much of the credit in the communications, information and the promotions they have done in the last four plus decades. That is one marketing order and commission that is very much an example for others to follow. I think there is some good things and stability in that sector.

On the other hand, when you look at peaches, plums and nectarines, we had a very tough year in 2008, saw somewhat of an improvement in 2010 with a shorter crop, but in 2010 that trend immediately reversed itself and overall not a good year economically for tree fruit growers and brought out the long going discussion about the need for reduction in the number of acres, and where will the profitable level be for peaches, plums and nectarines. We saw some acres pulled over the winter. This is good question now: will we be able to continue with the amount of information and estimates in 2011 that we expect normally to get from CTFA? I’m not sure. How will that void be filled?

Last year, given a crop, particularly on peaches that were later than normal in California compared to other areas of the country that were earlier than normal for peaches, I think that presented some definite marketing challenges and showed up in the returns of these growers. They are hoping for a bounce back in 2011. Now the question is, given the pressures that may follow (rainy) weather, will growers be able to effectively deal with them? We have a long ways to go in the growing season.

3:14 p.m. Karst: Take us back a few years; how did you get your start in the industry?

3:15 p.m. Bedwell: I grew in the central valley in Madera, Calif., a small town. I was one of those kids who wasn’t from a farm family but if you wanted to work during the summer you usually wound up trying to do something on a farm, from trying to pick Thompsons for raisins – that’s no fun, I’ll tell you that – you get those kinds of jobs. Then you tell them you know how to drive a tractor and you are not really sure you do. You get on a tractor and hope you don’t break anything. When I went to (Fresno State) I ended up being an accounting major and I went to work after college at Ernst and Ernst, which was at that time a big accounting firm in Sacramento. From there I was hired as a controller for a farm organization in the Central Valley. That’s where I become involved in agriculture.

3:17 p.m. Karst: What do count as one of the things you look back on reflect on in your career? What else to you want to accomplish?

3:18 p.m. Bedwell: When I look back, being involved in production agriculture gave me the opportunity to work originally for a grape growers cooperative called Allied Grape Growers and I was able work with Allied for 13 years. What I really appreciated was working for farmers who are inherently honest. They want to do the right thing, and it is a world that has become so complicated and the consumer is losing the understanding of who and why their domestic food production is so important. The (farmers) weren’t driven by egos, and they weren’t even driven by economics purely, although let’s face it if we don’t have economic viability, no one is going to be around and you have to make a product. But it was always about what they did, whether they produced the best rapes or the best peaches, there is a pride in what they do. At the same time, there is need for assistance, particularly at the company policy level, so that our friends who are the consumers don’t make decisions with unintended consequences that will invariably result in outsourcing our food production if we are not careful.

We talk about the need for regulation – absolutely – but you don’t do it to the point where you don’t give the tools for these people to provide you with the products. Whether it is food safety or food security, there are some many reasons to make sure you maintain a domestic food supply. So when I look back, it is always about the job satisfaction you get in making sure that these people are represented by education those decision makers, which I think well intended most of the time. But some many times their decisions are detrimental and they just don’t get it – and connect the dots and understand the total impact of these decisions. So that’s what I always look back to and that’s why I enjoy coming to work because working for people that do a great job for all of us. And they truly need, though, the assistance in communicating and educating others. I could be sitting behind a desk doing taxes right now. Would it be any fun? No.