A leader of California’s citrus industry was sharply critical at a Fresno agribusiness conference of how state regulators and the University of California have handled the issue of nitrates in Central Valley groundwater.

Joel Nelsen, president and CEO of California Citrus Mutual in Exeter, also blasted fellow panelists who favor growers keeping “nitrogen budgets” to document how much nitrogen is applied and how much is used to grow a crop.

“The term nitrogen budgets has to be removed from the vocabulary,” Nelsen said. “In the citrus industry, it’s not going to occur.”

Nelsen shared a panel on nitrates at the 31st Annual Agribusiness Management Conference with Parry Klassen, executive director of the East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition, and Stuart Pettygrove, a UC Cooperative Extension soils specialist.

Leaders of water quality coalitions have insisted that the so-called budgets, individual nitrogen management plans, would not be made available to the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board. In an interview after the conference, Nelsen said his concern is that state regulators could insist on reviewing those individual documents, but he believes producers should analyze application and use.

During the discussion that drew some 300 growers, bankers, students and others, Klassen and Pettygrove stood by their position that nitrogen management plans are a good way to document use of nutrients.

Pettygrove responded to Nelsen’s suggestion that use of “best management practices” could pose a better alternative.  “The difficulty is that there is not agreement on what so-called best management practices are best in a given environment,” he said.

Pettygrove also said, “I don’t know that it helps a lot to go into defense mode.”

Nelsen characterized a UC report on contamination of drinking water as “showboating” and repackaging of old material that created “an adversarial environment” in which the blame for contamination was laid “at the foot of agriculture.”

He said the state legislature, the governor and the agriculture industry became aware of nitrates in groundwater in 1988, and that agriculture has worked with researchers at various educational institutions to address the problem for nearly a quarter century.

Nelsen said the state has neglected to allocate available money to address the issue outside the agriculture arena, for example to pay for filtration systems in homes.

“We need to step away from onerous mandates,” he said.

A water board meeting on the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program will be held Nov. 30 in Bakersfield.

The agribusiness conference was sponsored by Fresno State’s Center for Agricultural Business, the California Agricultural Technology Institute and Bank of America.

It opened with observations on the nation’s economy, significant changes around the globe, what the nation’s election could bring and agriculture’s outlook. It closed with a look at the changing grocery retail industry.

Speakers included:

Charles Grimes, director of global export trade services for Citibank.

Grimes said it is expected fiscal 2013 exports from the United States will reach a record $143.5 billion. He said Asia is set to overtake Western Europe to become the world’s largest trading region by 2015.

China, already the world’s largest exporter in 2010, will become the world’s largest trading nation by 2015, overtaking the U.S., he said. Africa is expected to double its share of world trade from 3 percent in 2010 to 7 percent in 2050.

On the matter of trade pacts, Grimes expects more bilateral regional agreements and some movement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Aging agriculture industry, election results

Terry N. Barr, senior director, Knowledge Exchange Division of CoBank.

Barr said “a lot is riding on China,” where a new leader is stepping forward and growth is expected to slow. “The double digit growth rate is over,” he said.

Worldwide, he expects a lack of confidence in the United States will keep growth at 2 percent. Globally, he predicts 3 percent in 2013. In the U.S., Barr said, “investment is on hold” due to a number of uncertainties around topics that include the energy sector, immigration, health care, regulatory oversight and deficit reduction.

Barr said a drought has helped spike grain prices and there has been a steady trend upward in prices for fruits, nuts and vegetables, and all crops have moved up by 63 percent in the past five years. But he cautioned that not all of agriculture is benefiting. Dairy and beef producers, for example, have struggled with high feed costs and export challenges.

Barr expects major changes in North America’s search for energy with development of new technologies and use of shale oil and gas. He predicts oil will be in the $90 to $100 range per barrel.

Corny Gallagher, senior vice president and food, ag and wine executive with Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s Global Commercial Banking.

Gallagher said agriculture is challenged by aging on many fronts, including farmers themselves, workers, researchers and teaching staff. On the positive side, he said, demand for farm commodities has been growing because of populations and per capita income growth.

He said water use continues “to define California agriculture.” And he called for an emphasis on “water retention” rather than water storage.

Robert Guenther, senior vice president for public policy, with the United Fresh Produce Association.

Guenther talked of the impact of the presidential election as a tale of “the good, the bad and the ugly.” He said it’s good that “we know what happened.”

“The bad is that nothing has changed,” he said. And the ugly is an expectation that there will be a stepped up “regulatory environment.”

As to a 2012 farm bill reauthorization, he said that would likely require leadership action by a lame duck House of Representatives. It could take the form of a year’s extension, he said. There have been a total of six farm bill extensions.

Greg Calistro, executive director of produce and floral with Save Mart Supermarkets.

Calistro said the 60-year-old supermarket chain headquartered in Modesto is seeing significant changes that include tougher competition that includes on-line shopping and big box stores like Target and Costco.

Consumers want more in the way of convenience, he said. Among categories that are growing is pre-cut fruit and vegetable sales. He said an interest in healthy snacks is spawning vending machines with fresh fruit.

Other trends include interest in organics, shopping locally and using social media. Calistro said 68 percent of moms use smartphones and 64 percent scan QR (quick response) codes.

Younger shoppers — as young as 3 to 17 — “are the most sophisticated ever,” Calistro said. They are comfortable navigating the “social media landscape” and that helps drive awareness of recipes and specialty foods.

Buyers of herbs, he said, are likely to spend a minimum of $50 in the store, making purchases that also include lamb or other products.