Produce growers debate agreement

COLUMBUS — Leafy green vegetable growers are preparing for the possibility of a national agreement that would set standards for the production and handling of the vegetables.

The proposal, “Marketing Agreement Regulating Leafy Green Vegetables,” is expected to be submitted to the USDA before the end of June. It is backed by the National Leafy Greens Council and the Western Growers Association and has had input from growers as well as distributors, processors and other handlers.

(A draft of the proposal is available at the Western Growers Association Web site.)

Reducing problems

The goal is to reduce the risk of food safety problems related to leafy greens, such as the E. coli outbreak that occurred in fresh spinach in 2006.

Doug Doohan, fruit and vegetable specialist with Ohio State University Extension, said he is not sure if an agreement like this would be either a good thing or a bad thing for Ohio producers. He added it will depend on what the marketing agreement includes and how it handles smaller producers.

“It is too early to tell. It’s still uncertain and undetermined,” Doohan said.

Future plans. He added the positive thing for Ohio growers is that they have already started roundtable discussions on the safe production of fresh produce.

“The good thing is Ohio producers are not waiting. They are already holding meetings to determine what guidelines Ohio should have,” Doohan said.

The potential proposal was discussed May 6 at a meeting of the Ohio Roundtable on Safe Production of Fresh Produce, which has met annually since 2007.

The roundtable, which Doohan leads, is composed of Ohio produce growers and retailers as well as Ohio State faculty and staff. It aims to foster communication between growers, researchers and Extension specialists and identify focus areas for programs involving Ohio’s produce industry.

Agreement possibility

If an agreement is created for leafy greens, it would be a marketing agreement and would be industry-driven, meaning it would apply only to handlers who sign up to participate in the plan and the growers they accept produce from.

However, large retail outlets may decide that they will purchase leafy greens only from handlers who participate in the agreement. If that is the case, then the agreement will, in effect, apply to all major growers and handlers, as well as to small growers who hope to someday sell product to large grocery stores and similar outlets.

“That’s why everyone needs to offer their input as the process unfolds,” Doohan said.

Not included

The agreement would reportedly not apply to growers who sell to consumers directly, such as through farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture or produce stands.

In addition, the USDA is required to review the potential agreement to be certain they don’t put an undue burden on smaller growers.

First draft

Participants at the roundtable reviewed a draft of the national proposal. Currently, the draft calls for forming a Leafy Greens products administrative committee that would include representation from growers and handlers from five regions across the United States. Ohio would be in Zone 4, which would also include Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, and would also include representation from retail, food service, the public, and importers.

Area standards. Regions would develop their own standards to take into account regional differences in growing and handling practices. Each region could even decide to develop guidelines for different types of producers (organic, small growers and large growers, for example), as long as the end goal of safe produce remains the same.

About the Author

Kristy Foster Seachrist lives in Columbiana County raising sheep and horses. She earned her degree from Youngstown State University and has worked in both print and broadcast journalism. You can follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/fosterk96. More Stories by Kristy Foster Seachrist

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