Upon arriving at a Kingsburg, Calif.-area peach orchard at 7 a.m., Aug. 5, Elanor Starmer received a briefing on worker and food safety before being given a ladder and picking bag and sent down a row to begin harvest.

A half-hour into struggling with the three-legged ladder and trying to determine whether fruit was ripe enough to pick, the special assistant to the U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs admits she has a new view of farm workers.

“It’s harder than I thought it would be,” Starmer said. “I’m much slower than people who do it professionally, so it gives me some insight into picking our fruit and getting it to the right place.”

She was one of about two dozen government regulators from Washington, D.C., who spent a week in California experiencing the industry first hand as part of the DC Exchange.

The program has been hosted annually by the California Agricultural Leadership Program for more than 30 years, said Darlene Din, a graduate of leadership class 35 and one of the exchange organizers.

It is designed to help educate government regulators about the diversity of California agriculture as well as the myriad issues it faces, she said.

The lack of knowledge was one of the main drivers behind the program’s development initially.

Federal regulators receive hands-on ag lessons“We realized as we talked to them they’d never been to California, and we found that many didn’t realize California was a big ag state,” Din said.

Andrea Huberty, USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s Biotechnology Regulatory Service branch chief, is one of those, having been born in Wisconsin and having worked in Washington, D.C., most of her life.

“I think it’s an excellent experience for someone like me to get my boots on the ground and learn about the real story,” Huberty said. “You hear a lot of things when you’re inside the Beltway.”

The exchange program typically receives 70-80 applications each year, and a panel of leadership alumni first screen the applications, then interview the finalists in person before selecting 20-25 participants, Din said.

Participants this year came from the USDA, Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of Interior, Department of State, Centers for Disease Control and U.S. International Trade Commission.

Each exchange member is paired for the week with a host who is an alumnus of the leadership program.

After spending Sunday touring San Joaquin Valley’s broad array of crops with her host, Huberty said she already had gained a better understanding of the state’s ag industry.

“We never talk about water (out East), but it’s a huge issue here,” she said. “I’ve never been to the Central Valley, and it was amazing to me coming and seeing all of the agriculture and the sheer size of it.”

The hands-on introduction to fruit harvest at McClarty Farms was one of many stops, which also included Dresick Farms Inc./DFI Marketing, Sun World, Oceano Breeze Farms and Pismo Ocean Vegetable Exchange.

Barry Bedwell, president of the Fresno-based California Grape and Tree Fruit League who joined owner Harold McClarty in addressing the rookie picking crew, said he supports these types of programs.

“I think it can be a very positive experience, and I think it’s very important that we consider the term balance,” he said. “And what we’re trying to do is present a balanced point of view to these regulators.”

Bedwell took the opportunity to talk to exchange participants about the need for immigration reform, pending legislation and how workers — like the picking crews seen in the orchard — can’t be replaced by just anybody walking in off the street.

“We’re talking about some of the most labor-intensive crops, and I think, as you can see, it’s not unskilled labor,” he said of stone fruit.

Bedwell also pointed out that family growers, such as McClarty, contribute to both domestic and international trade.

In addition to shipping to numerous U.S. retailers, McClarty was the first U.S. stone fruit grower-shipper to export peaches into Australia, culminating three years of efforts to crack that market.