The Arizona leafy green shipper marketing agreement (ALGMA) entered the good ag practices audit stage in February with voluntary inspections where desert winter leafy green vegetables are grown and shipped.

“The next step is compliance audits that are scheduled to start on March 1,” according to Jim Nowlin, Arizona Department of Agriculture (ADA) assistant director, citrus, fruit, and vegetable division. ADA is providing administrative services for the leafy green agreement.

The Arizona program mirrors a similar voluntary pact established last year in California in the wake of an E. Coli 0157 outbreak that extracted a heavy toll on the California leafy green industry.

The food safety breach resulted in several deaths, sickening hundreds and eroding consumer confidence in fresh leafy greens. Financial losses to agriculture were estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Leafy green production shifts to the low desert in California's Imperial Valley and Arizona from about September through the early spring when it shifts back to the California coastal areas. The majority of leafy green shippers are the same for Arizona and California.

“It makes sense to have consistent standards for year-round shipments of leafy greens,” said Rick Rademacher, president of the Yuma Fresh Vegetable Association (YFVA) that represents about 70 growers and shippers in Yuma County, Ariz. “It's very important for shippers to tell their customers that California and Arizona are in compliance with the same metrics.”

About 98 percent of Arizona leafy greens are grown in Yuma County, Ariz., with additional acreage in Pinal and Maricopa counties, Nowlin said.

Leafy greens covered by the Arizona program include iceberg lettuce, romaine lettuce, green leaf lettuce, red leaf lettuce, butter lettuce, baby leaf lettuce (i.e., immature lettuce or leafy greens), escarole, endive, spring mix, spinach, cabbage, kale, arugula, and chard.

The Western Growers Association, YFVA, and the Arizona Farm Bureau spearheaded the Arizona program. Two Arizona growers/shippers requested the ALGMA, an ADA requirement for ALGMA certification, including C.R. Waters, Duda Farm Fresh Foods, Yuma, and Tom Russell, Pacific International Marketing that handles produce in the Yuma and Phoenix areas.

Shipper enrollment in both state agreements is voluntary. Once the contract is signed, however, the shipper must comply with all agreement provisions.

According to Nowlin, 40 Arizona shippers signed up representing about 86 percent of Arizona's leafy green production.

Five people from the California Department of Agriculture (CDFA) are conducting the Arizona audits this winter under an agreement with the ADA. Two ADA employees recently completed good agricultural/handling practice classes at the U.S. Department of Agriculture training center in Fredericksburg, Va. The employees will shadow the CDFA auditors and ‘fill-in’ as needed, Nowlin said.

The ‘good agricultural practices’ or metrics under the ALGMA are identical to the California agreement with two minor exceptions. The ALGMA refers to the term “shipper” to conform to an Arizona statute where the CLGMA references “handler.” The second difference specifies that water delivered to crops can be carried by ditches, canals, and rivers.

The ALGMA committee formed last October includes five members elected by the signatories. They include: C.R. Waters (ALGMA chair); Eric Swartz, Dole Fresh Vegetables; Vicky Scott, Amigo Farms; Arnott Duncan, Sunfresh Farms; and Tom Russell. Two sub-committees will focus on technical and communication issues.

The Arizona program is funded by a 3 cents per carton assessment. The California program assessment is 2 cents. According to Waters, “Arizona produces less leafy green volume than California so the additional assessment amount was needed to cover expenses.”

Still to be decided by the committee is who will enforce the ALGMA, establish penalties for non-compliance, develop service and certifications marks, plus a Web site.

The ALGMA committee has no plans now to hire a chief executive officer (CEO), Waters said. The CLGMA CEO is Scott Horsfall.

The Yuma County leafy green industry has been operating under the California metrics since the winter vegetable season began last fall for consistency, Rademacher explained.

Some estimate producer costs in the $40 to $75 per acre range to comply with the best agricultural practices outlined in the agreement. “That's a lot of money especially when fertilizer costs have tripled in the last five years, diesel costs have tripled, and wages keep rising,” Rademacher said. “It's another cost that will be tough to bear but it's the issue of staying in business or else.”

Helping to offset higher production costs are increased production efficiencies — increased production per acre, growing higher quality produce, and utilizing some less than perfect farm ground, Rademacher said.

Meeting food safety requirements in Yuma County has led to tearing down older houses on farms sometimes utilized for worker housing, plus removing trees, brush, and natural vegetation around fields. Newly installed vinyl fences are designed to screen out rabbits, mice, and other animals from fields.

“Removing old houses and trees is no longer a judgment call. The answer is we have to clear them out,” Rademacher said.

What is the toughest ALGMA metric? Rademacher said the toughest agreement guideline is keeping the general public out of farm fields. “People living near vegetable fields like to walk their dogs in the morning and watch people work in the fields. People have a natural affinity for the business we're in.”

“The reality is they can't do that anymore. We don't want them walking around the fields with their dogs. Agriculture is a workplace. I hope the public understands this.”