(Sept. 25, EDITOR’S COLUMN)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Attendees of this year’s Washington Public Policy Conference likely learned a new word in the government lingo: Chimps.

The Sept. 10-12 meeting, hosted by the United Fresh Produce Association, shows produce industry members how and what they should talk about with their senators and representatives in Congress.

The industry figured it won an important battle this summer when $3 billion of the $300 billion farm bill was assigned to specialty crop interests, but conference attendees learned the battle isn’t over.

We found out that during the appropriation process, when funding is further discussed and assigned, sometimes there are Changes to Mandatory Program Spending. Thus, some of that $3 billion might be a victim of ChiMPS.

Sounds like a lot of monkey business, noted Manuel Rodriguez, senior vice president of Chiquita Brands, Cincinnati.

But it’s serious, and the industry now has to keep the heat on appropriation committees in both houses of Congress.

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It’s always fun to be in D.C. right before an election.

United Fresh does a wonderful job recruiting congressmen and — women important to the produce industry, but the presidential election a mere six weeks away is on everyone’s mind.

The complaint that politics in the Beltway is excessively partisan proved true at this meeting. Of all the politicians and their aides I heard from general session speakers to visits in congressional offices, only two talked about bipartisanship and didn’t hammer attendees with how their man, John McCain or Barack Obama, can fix everything, and the other will ruin everything.

Listening to Rep. Dennis Cardoza, a California Democrat from the San Joaquin Valley, talk about the farm bill struggles without singling out the opposite party was refreshing.

He justly deserved United Fresh’s Industry Advocate of the Year Award.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., also talked about bipartisan triumph for produce in the farm bill and fresh fruits and vegetables’ role in nutrition programs.

She showed she knew quite a bit about the attendees and their industry, and she hammered FDA for protecting neither the public nor industry in the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak.

Produce should be optimistic that DeLauro can make some changes for the better when the next outbreak hits.

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At one of the conference meals, a lady from the FDA told me we were sitting in a famous hotel.

The Mayflower, where the event was held, is where New York Gov. Elliot Spitzer allegedly met his high-priced prostitutes before getting caught and resigning from office in March.

Of course, that’s not all the Mayflower is famous for. It’s also the largest luxury hotel in the capital, opening in 1925. It hosts a famous inauguration day ball every four years, and it was the home of President Harry Truman for his first 90 days in office while the White House was being renovated.

On the more scandalous side, it’s where Monica Lewinsky stayed during her affair with President Clinton, and it’s rumored to be where President Kennedy kept his mistress Judith Campbell Exner.

Amy Philpott, vice president of communications for United Fresh, said this was the first year the event took place at the Mayflower, and next year’s conference, Sept. 9-11, also is scheduled there.

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The final session of the conference pitted representatives from the McCain and Obama campaigns to talk about their candidates’ agriculture credentials, among other issues.

Speaking for McCain was John Block, former Agriculture Secretary under President Reagan. For Obama was Todd Campbell, national rural vote director.

The idea was good, but neither seemed to have the authority to speak too specifically on ag policy or really much else.

Block played up McCain’s fiscal conservatism, defending his voting against the 2008 farm bill by saying, “Some people say he’s a tight wad, but maybe we need a tight wad in the White House.”

Campbell said Obama’s management style, whether it relates to agriculture or any other policy, is to listen to intelligent people for solutions.

To me, it resembled an Apple computer ad with the hip, young guy representing Obama (Apple), and the crusty, old guy representing PC (McCain).

The problem for Apple is that while it may represent young, cool, edgy and hot growth, it still only captures about 3% of the worldwide personal computer market and 6% in the U.S., according Apple’s first-quarter numbers, and it’s being outsold by Dell 5-to-1.

The produce industry tends to favor the conservative over the liberal, but I’d put Obama’s support a little higher than 6% among attendees. It may be closer to its Dell ratio.

Conference attendees learn the danger of chimps
Greg Johnson
Editor