Obama administration limitations on lobbyist membership for U.S. Department of Agriculture advisory committees have created openings for industry volunteers.

The policy committee and technical advisory committees were established in 1974 as a formal way for the private sector to communicate with the U.S. Trade Representative and the Secretary of Agriculture about agricultural trade issues.

The advisory committees are jointly managed by the USDA and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

On Sept. 8 last year Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and USTR Ron Kirk announced the appointment of 148 private-sector members to the policy committee and the six technical committees, including one committee focused on fruits and vegetables, said Julie Scott, spokeswoman for USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service

Scott said those appointees will serve until June 9 of 2015, but will be added to by additional appointments over the next four years. With room for more than 30 members, Scott said the Fruit and Vegetable Agricultural Technical Advisory Committee could use about 12 more members.

The technical committee aims to meet twice a year in person, along with several conference calls throughout the year, she said. Scott said the fruit and vegetable  technical committee last met in December 2011 and heard updates from the USDA and the USTR on the status with specific trading partners and technical barriers to specialty crop exports. The next meeting of the group is scheduled for April 4 this year, Scott said.

Bob Schramm, lobbyist with Schramm, Williams & Associates Inc., Washington, D.C., said he served on the technical committee for fruits and vegetables from 1989 to 2011 and found it worthwhile. Because he is a registered lobbyist, Schramm can no longer serve on the technical committee. Other former members of the technical committee not invited back because of the Obama Administration policy include Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association and Nancy Foster, president of the Vienna, Va.-based U.S. Apple Association.

“The technical committee provides a great service to the produce industry,” Schramm said. “It is the main avenue of information for our trade negotiators.” Schramm said he hopes a change in administration will someday reverse the policy that prohibits lobbyists from serving on the advisory committees.

Guenther said the decision has left the committees with less historical expertise on fruit and vegetable issues.

“They made this decision so they need to figure out on how to best address it,” he said.  

Guenther said it’s particularly concerning that the former chairman of the technical committee, Mark Powers, vice president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, Yakima, Wash., was not invited back even though he is not a registered lobbyist.

Powers said experienced people remain on the committees. However, Powers regrets there is no current technical committee member representing the interest of apple, pear and cherry growers in the Northwest.

Technical committee member John McClung, president of the Mission-based Texas Produce Association, said the exclusion of lobbyists was understandable considering the policy of the Obama administration. However, he said the committee has lost access to some of the most compelling expertise in the industry.

The reformulated fruit and vegetable technical committee will still help the industry, one current committee member said.

“I’m bullish on the technical committee,” said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, Exeter.  

Nelsen is the current chairman of the technical committee and is serving his third four-year term, and has said the group is listened to by trade and agriculture officials.

 “They are seeking legitimate input and it is up to the private sector apprised of what is going on,” he said.

In future meetings, Nelsen said he hopes the group can address communication between the Food and Drug Administration and the USDA as it relates to regulation of foreign production areas.

If there is a negative reaction to offshore production areas, whether it be grower or government, the USDA and USTR folks are best equipped to address the concerns,” he said.

“The last thing we want from an agriculture perspective is to have a knee jerk reaction from an offshore trading partner that suspends, hampers or otherwise creates a barrier in response to a food safety inspection team.” Nelsen said the fruit and vegetable technical committee will also discussion the ramifications of the Trans Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement between the U.S. and more than a dozen countries in Asia and the South Pacific. “Should the potential trade agreement include Mexico, Canada and Japan?” Nelsen said. “There is controversy about that.”

Another agenda item is the Obama administration’s proposal to consolidate the USTR in the Department of Commerce. “I can tell you that there is significant heartburn among my colleagues about that issue,” he said.

Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Exchange, said being a member of the technical committee has provided him insight on the complexity of agricultural trade negotiations.

The USDA is seeking new members for both the Fruit and Vegetable Agricultural Technical Advisory Committee and the Agricultural Policy Advisory Committee, Scott said in a March 13 e-mail. Scott said nominations are accepted at any time and appointments are typically made for a period of four years.

Members of the committees aren’t compensated for time or travel.

Scott urged those interested in serving on the advisory committees to go to the web site for more information on membership criteria and nomination procedures. Questions may be directed to Steffon Brown or Bob Spitzer at 202-720-6219 or via e-mail to Steffon.Brown@fas.usda.gov or Bob.Spitzer@fas.usda.gov.