Oh, no! Oh, my! Now, what will we do?

That alarm is usually reserved for the arrival of my mother-in-law. But no, this is about a press release. And it’s not just the President or Hillary talking, it is someone big, someone important, it is WAL-MART! Yes, $90-­billion-in-fourth-quarter-sales Wal–Mart. Selling-the-value-of-a-small-country-every-three-months Wal–Mart.

Recently, Wal-Mart announced that it would require that the fruit it buys must come from warehouses that are certified as Integrated Fruit Production (IFP). The company is looking for one of several certifications that accomplish this. This can be the USDA program called Good Handling Practices (GHP) or the Safe Quality Foods (SQF) program or one of several other programs that can certify.

That announcement applies to packing houses. What does this mean to us as growers? It does not mean that we must get farm certified at this time. It does mean that what was over the horizon last year, needs to be on our radar screen this year. We may quickly find ourselves in the same position as European growers who are required to have farm certification.

The market is demanding:

• Verifiably safe growing practices (i.e., food that is free from contaminants)

• Traceability

• Sustainable practices

• Good, safe, working conditions for farm employees

In the past few years, the purchase of produce in the United States has become concentrated among just a few buyers. Wal-Mart, Kroger, and Costco each sell more than $60 billion dollars of food each year. Food sales at Super Value, Loblaw, and Publix are in the tens of ­billions of dollars as well. When one or more of these buyers make a demand, we have little choice but to respond.

There are also other types of certification. These programs target the export or organic markets. For example, the European export market may require certification by EurepGAP, Natures Choice, or other programs.

Little consensus

The National Organic Program has over 40 certifying bodies in the United States. These can be accessed via the Internet. A quick review of these programs makes it clear that they focus primarily on certifying the freedom from chemical contamination.

European programs encompass more facets of ­production in that they also include issues that affect farmworkers. In the United States, many of these worker issues are addressed through federal and state laws ­regulated by government agencies.

Domestic on-farm certifications can be performed by entities including but not limited to:

• USDA program Good Agricultural Practices (GAP)

• Safe Quality Food (SQF)

• Food Alliance (based in Portland, Oregon)

Fortunately, these domestic farm certification programs are designed to be relatively affordable compared to some of the foreign programs. When necessary, most growers should be able to make the adjustments in their operation to become domestically certified for under $3,000. This compares with some of the foreign programs that may cost growers tens of thousands of dollars in order to meet their standards. By complying with current federal and state regulations, many of the domestic certification requirements will have been met. There will, however, be some added requirements regarding records and sanitation. Domestic programs primarily focus on freedom from pathogens.

There is little consensus as to which program (if any) will become dominant. GAP and SQF seem to be the best known. There seems to be little financial incentive to be certified domestically at this time, but we are only a press statement away from that changing. It would serve us well to be observant to this trend and prepare our operations for quick compliance.

At the recent annual conference of the International Fruit Tree Association in Visalia, California, Yavuz Taner addressed the group with information on the cherry industry in Turkey as well as their accompanying ­Southern Hemisphere production in Argentina. Taner is the founder of Alara, one of the largest exporters of sweet cherries in the world. He commented that most
of the 12,000 Alara growers are EurepGAP certified. This may foreshadow things to come for U.S. growers. If so, we need to be ready.

Now, how will I prevent my mother-in-law from ­seeing this article? 

Timothy Dahle was an agriculture teacher in Minnesota before moving to The Dalles, Oregon, in 1979. He began his tree fruit orcharding endeavors as a field hand, then foreman, and manager. In 1984, he purchased his first cherry orchard and is now one of the larger organic cherry growers in The Dalles. Dahle has served as a director of the International Fruit Tree Association since 2004 and is active on the association’s Research Committee.