California Fresh Fruit Association aims to ease pressure on ag

DANA POINT, Calif. - George Radanovich, president of California Fresh Fruit Association, aims to get agriculture back on offense in the state legislature.

At the association's annual meeting March 19-21, more than one person referred to 2016 as one of the toughest legislative years in decades for the California industry, with the increase of the minimum wage and the elimination of an overtime pay exemption for agriculture.

"What we're trying to do is reach out to as many moderate Democrats as well as Republicans ... and let them be aware of what they're doing and the harm it's causing," Radanovich said. "We hope to broaden our support there, and hopefully that will make a difference."

Industry members have said the legislation recently passed will hurt farm workers because the laws impose greater financial pressures on companies, which could cut hours to avoid paying the higher costs.

Radanovich said that, since beginning in his role last summer, he has found California legislators to be largely unsympathetic to agriculture.

"What was truly amazing for me was to really kind of become more aware of what the state labor issues are and how onerous they are ... and how the government in Sacramento is just stacked against agriculture - frankly acts as if they publicly would rather it not even be in the state of California anymore," Radanovich said.

In the same vein, the California Fresh Fruit Association has also taken issue with another form of regulation: the ethical charter for responsible labor practices that United Fresh Produce Association and Produce Marketing Association have proposed.

Part of the industry concern - also expressed by Western Growers and Northwest Horticultural Council - is that setting those standards could lead to another audit.

"That's the last thing they need is another audit," Radanovich said. "Those audits are strict, and they create a lot of paperwork, and one might be necessary, but multiples just do not make sense."

United Fresh president Tom Stenzel spoke about the charter at the meeting of the board of directors March 21.

"I think it was made well known to him that (members) didn't appreciate the fact that a grower organization was participating in something like this," Radanovich said.

"It likely will become something, and it's unfortunate, but it probably will, and we'll just deal with it when it happens," Radanovich said, "but we have to maintain our strong objection."

Labor and water are the two issues on which Radanovich will focus as president, as he did for 16 years in Congress, and he sees opportunities in those challenges.

"(The) members of the association stretch from Lake County in the north to Coachella in the south, and I feel that if we can come up with a big water plan that works for our members, you could easily see to where all of California ag might be able to rally around the plan, and if we're unified around the water plan, we could become a force," Radanovich said, "so I'm going to do what I can to move that along."