(Nov.6) When I joined The Packer, the U.S. Department of Agriculture didn’t have the extensive online database that now makes finding statistics, news releases and other information so easy.

I had to call one individual who worked at the USDA to get certain statistics. I hated even picking up the phone. This person was the most irascible, don’t-bother-me-it’s-not-my-job jerk you can imagine — and he conformed perfectly to my idea of what a USDA bureaucrat was all about.

Along with my general inability to get anything out of the USDA without making at least 18 phone calls, my friend the bureaucrat shaped my opinion of the department as a bloated, inefficient governmental body full of incompetent workers. In short, the Republican world view.

Not long ago I made a trip into the citrus groves in southwest Florida and spent some time with Tommy Duda, the vice president in charge of the citrus division at Oviedo, Fla.-based A. Duda & Sons Inc.

Somehow the issue of the USDA’s vast online database came up, and I made the comment that it was about the only thing the department does well.

That got a chuckle out of Tommy. “You’re the one who said it,” he pointed out.

I made a few more observations on the vast difference in my dealings with private companies — who must answer every day to customers or else face the consequences of the marketplace — and government agencies, where the employees seem to embrace the twin notions of cover your own you-know-what and make sure next year’s budget isn’t compromised by prudent spending this year.

Slow everything down. Think up new ways to produce paperwork. Change what’s working, and don’t even think about fixing what’s broke if it means another year of job security.

I’d seen this in the military, and I’d seen it while working in a veterans services office at a public university.

But then Tommy made a remark that locked up my thoughts. “It’s still the greatest country in the world,” he said.

For all the faults we find with government — and there are plenty of them top of mind as election day approaches — things still work pretty darn good. That’s something I and many of my conservative friends tend to forget, now and again. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to judge.

And thinking more closely about my view of the USDA … maybe it needs updating. Recently I’ve spoken with Jim Frazier, chief of the USDA’s Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act branch, and I have to say he’s one of the genuinely nicest people I’ve met in the produce industry. And George Chartier, a USDA spokesman, has been wonderfully helpful on numerous occasions.

Sure, USDA referendums get bogged down to a maddening degree sometimes. Rules, such as the recently issued voluntary country-of-origin labeling requirements, often aren’t as simple as they might be. But a certain amount of bureaucracy is to be expected.

There are plenty of competent and good-intentioned folks doing their best within that machine.

On the trip to Duda’s citrus groves, we passed a field with massive piles of grapefruit. Tommy Duda explained that it was culled fruit from the packinghouse, and it wasn’t even economically viable to process it at the adjacent juice plant.

Talk about your indicators of a poor grapefruit juice market.

Here’s another: Duda’s cattle grazing on the fruit in that field were markedly heavier than cattle elsewhere on the ranch. There’s a bright side to everything.

And Duda had a bright story to tell about China. Despite the opening of that market to much fanfare in 1999, early efforts to bypass Hong Kong and ship grapefruit to China’s mainland weren’t very successful.

The business culture is far different there, and getting paid isn’t a sure thing.

But Duda has been slowly building sales to the mainland. On the day I visited, the packinghouse was cranking out cartons of fruit bound for China and Japan, a vital export market that shippers once struggled with, as well.