The U.S. Department of Agriculture is pushing for increased diversity on commodity research and marketing boards, standards that fruit and vegetable grower organizations say will be difficult to attain and disruptive to their operations.

Early this year, the USDA began asking boards to make efforts to nominate women and minorities as they are represented in the industry. In keeping with the department’s emphasis on giving smaller growing operations wider access to markets, the USDA is asking the national boards to nominate smaller-scale producers.

The USDA also signaled tighter restrictions on term limits, saying board members should serve no more than two terms, a longstanding bylaw of the promotion and research boards that had not been strictly regulated before.

The USDA “sees the pursuit of diversity in board membership as an opportunity for embracing new ideas and growth that will enable boards to better serve the industry,” said Michael Jarvis, a spokesman for the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, which oversees the commodity boards.

“The industry population that pays the marketing and promotion assessment is diverse,” Jarvis said. “And the boards should reflect that diversity in the size of operations, experience of members, methods of production and distribution, marketing strategies, and other distinguishing factors that will bring different perspectives and ideas to the table.”

But meeting stepped-up diversity standards will be difficult for some regions of the country where there are few minority growers — and relatively few growers, period — the groups say.

One apparent problem is that the USDA “wants you to find minorities where they don’t exist,” said David Fraser, a spokesman for the U.S. Potato Board, Denver. “In the smaller regions, that becomes more difficult.”

For example, Fraser said the Potato Board knows of one African-American grower in the Southeast.

There are areas “where you don’t have a large pool of growers to begin with,” he said.

The Potato Board and other groups say they’re in favor of diversity, but fear a one-size-fits-all approach that fails to take into account different characteristics of specific industries.

“On a practical basis, it’s unworkable in some respects,” Fraser said.

Term limits

A bigger problem, grower groups said, is the USDA’s stricter interpretation of board member term limits. This would eliminate so-called “retreads,” people who serve a term, sit out for a few years then are tapped to serve additional terms.

“Over time, there is a real possibility that strict term limits may impact many states which don’t have a large base of growers to draw upon,” said Frank Muir, chief executive officer for the Idaho Potato Commission, Eagle.

“Long term, it is most important to the potato industry to have men and women who are willing and committed to serve in these positions,” Muir said.

The Agricultural Marketing Service oversees about 50 federally sanctioned boards representing state and regional growers groups, including Vidalia onions and California avocados, and national research and promotion boards, including mangoes and watermelons. Growers pay assessments based on volumes they ship/handle and the USDA oversees the budgets.

Growers nominate board members, but the agriculture secretary has final approval on appointees.

While the USDA has had a “diversity mission statement” for at least three years, the recent directive signals a heightened commitment under the Obama administration “to represent as many voices as possible” on the boards, the USDA said.

It’s not clear how many minorities, women or other representation individual boards would need under the directive.

Board members “should reflect the diversity of their industries,” said Jarvis, the USDA spokesman. There are no penalties for failing to meet diversity standards, he said.

Some grower groups say they’re already up to par. About one-fourth of the Hass Avocado Board, which includes 12 full-time members and 12 alternates, are women or Hispanic, said managing director Jose Luis Obregon.

The Irvine, Calif.-based organization represents growers and importers accounting for most of the avocados sold in the U.S., including imports from Mexico and Chile.

“Our board is very well-represented” by minorities, Obregon said. “For us, it’s not a big change.”