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Laura Mrachek is the new Washington State Hort Association president.

Laura Mrachek is the new Washington State Hort Association president.

As the new president of the Washington State Horticultural Association, Laura Mrachek is leading an effort to turn the hassle of complying with food-safety requirements into opportunities for the state’s tree fruit industry.

Fruit packers are already dealing with the headaches of being audited under a plethora of food safety programs required by their customers. But now, some purchasers are also requiring food-safety certification on the farm.

Mrachek says addressing food-safety issues is no longer an option for growers. "It needs to be part of your business plan," she said.

However, as orchardists and grape growers, she and her husband, Mike, fully understand how overwhelming even the thought of trying to meet the requirements of the various food-safety programs can be for growers.

"My husband and I were looking at these programs and throwing our hands up and saying, ‘Where do we start?’" she said. "We know it’s coming. We don’t need something else to do. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone would do it for us? Many growers are not able to afford a dedicated person to do the paperwork."

Grower-friendly

That got Mrachek thinking about the need for a single, comprehensive, grower-friendly program that could satisfy the requirements of all the major food-safety programs and be applicable to tree fruits.

She recruited the help of pest management and food-safety consultant Rob Koch to study the requirements of GlobalGAP, Primus Labs, Safe Quality Food (SQF), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Good Agricultural Practices, and wrap them into a single, simpler program that would meet all the requirements.

The new program, called Growers’ Response to Agricultural and Sustainable Practices, addresses good agricultural practices, food safety, and sustainability, and should make it easier for growers to comply. In addition, the uniformity from grower to grower will allow the industry to tout the sustainable practices of Washington tree fruit growers in general.

The Washington State Hort Association’s board has given its nod of approval, and the program will be launched at its annual convention in Yakima in December.

GRASP will put the Hort Association in the driver’s seat in terms of food safety and sustainability, Mrachek believes. It will give the industry a single voice on those issues when talking to consumers, retailers, or policy makers.

Mrachek said the Washington tree fruit industry needs to be part of the national conversation about food safety and sustainability, and this program will help ensure that decisions that are made are applicable to the state’s orchardists.

"It’s going to be difficult for us to sit at the table with credibility if we don’t have something like this behind us," she said. "It will put us in such a position of strength as an industry that we will be able to lead on the national level and international level."

Basic information on GRASP will be offered as a benefit of membership of the Hort Association, and participation will be free until memberships come up for renewal next June. Growers who want to do more than the basic program will be able to participate at a higher level for a fee.

Mrachek estimates that 40 percent of the state’s growers are Hort members, and hopes that the program will draw more growers in so that the association can speak on behalf of the industry as a whole.

Major tree fruit grower-packers have reacted positively to the idea. GRASP will allow growers the flexibility to transfer among warehouses without needing different certifications, and make it easier if they send portions of their crop to different warehouses. And it will relieve warehouses of the need to be involved in orchard certifications.

Consultant Susan Pheasant has been helping Mrachek with the organizational aspects of the program. Three working groups will be formed to work on economic, environmental, and educational areas. The role of the association in GRASP will be as educator and implementer, not policeman, Mrachek stressed, although a method of certifying growers under GRASP will probably be required.

The program must be economically as well as environmentally sustainable, she said. She feels that good management practices have helped packers better understand their processes and be more aware of food-safety issues, which has been a benefit to them. Koch said growers who have already implemented good agri cultural practices have been able to streamline their operations, improve efficiency, and save money.

Education is a major component of GRASP, though it’s a matter of pulling together all the available information growers will need, rather than creating it. For example, the program ties in with Washington State University’s Pest Management Transition Program, and the national Environmental Quality Incentives Program. Koch said many growers are already using the practices needed to comply, but might not have been documenting them.

Sustainability roadmap

"We’re not reinventing any wheels," Mrachek stressed. "The information is all out there. We don’t have to create anything. We need to pull it all together into this optimal package."

As the program develops, other groups will be involved, such as the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, Washington State University, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and possibly the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

As well as providing a response to political challenges on environmental issues, the program could help the industry better focus on research priorities, Mrachek said. She sees the need for a sustainability roadmap along the lines of the existing technology roadmap.

Bruce Grim, executive director of the Hort Association, said the tree fruit industry’s position on food safety so far has been to claim that it is different from the produce industries that have had problems, such as leafy greens, because fruit is not grown on the ground. But it needs to be more proactive.

"Food-safety is coming, and we’d better be out in the forefront of this thing, or we’ll wind up with programs and obligations to comply with that we’re not at all happy with. It behooves us to craft our own program."

Mrachek said GRASP gives the industry credibility and bargaining strength. "I’m passionate about it."