WASHINGTON — San Joaquin Valley fruit and vegetable growers will have a pipeline to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, or at least to somewhere in his vicinity, through a newly appointed advisory panel.
On Tuesday, Vilsack appointed representatives of the Valley's frozen food, wine, raisin and carrot industries to the committee that advises his department on fruit and vegetable policies. Overall, Californians numerically dominate the advisory committee, one of many now nudging the federal government.
"There's a great value to this," said Lisa McNeece, vice president of the Bakersfield-based Grimmway Enterprises. "We can bring issues that need to be addressed to the attention of the Agriculture Department."
McNeece is one of eight Californians named to the department's 25-member Fruit and Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee. No other state has as many members, and no other region nationwide is as well represented as the San Joaquin Valley.
Grimmway, for one, is the nation's largest carrot-producing company, with fields spread from Tulare to Imperial counties. Joining McNeece on the advisory panel will be Vaughn Koligian, from the Kingsburg-based Sun-Maid Growers; William Smittcamp, president of the Clovis-based Wawona Frozen Foods; and Dianne Nury of the Fresno-based Vie-Del Co., which produces brandy and wine.
Like Grimmway, many of the specific companies represented rank among the most prominent in their field. California's berry producers, for instance, have a voice through the advisory committee membership of Michael Hollister, vice president of the influential Watsonville-based Driscoll Strawberry Associates.
"I believe that we can have an impact," said Koligian, a Fresno County grape and almond farmer who works as Sun-Maid's director of corporate sustainability. "Historically, our industry has not been well represented on national policy matters."
The fruit and vegetable advisory committee will meet once or twice this year, brainstorming and drafting recommendations. Last year's committee, for instance, convened in a Crowne Plaza Hotel in northern Virginia. Members formally urged support for a national leafy green marketing agreement, similar to what has already been adopted in California, as well support for a "national school salad bar policy."
Country-of-origin labeling, inspection policy and child nutrition programs are also likely to be on the agenda.
"There's so much more we need to do with fruits and vegetables," McNeece said.
First established in 2001, the newly reformed fruit and vegetable advisory committee has a two-year charter. Some of the members named Tuesday, including McNeece, served previously — although neither McNeece nor Koligian said they knew of the new appointments until informed by a reporter.
The fruit and vegetable panel, in turn, is only one of roughly 1,000 federal advisory committees. The Agriculture Department alone is encircled by dozens of advisory panels, focusing on everything from dairy, meat and poultry policies to the arcana of agricultural statistics.
The federal government's estimated 51,000 advisory committee members are not paid for their time. Still, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service noted that it costs about $352 million annually to cover associated travel, hotel and staff expenses.