I am fortunate to travel the country meeting with apple growers, packers, and other USApple members, and hear firsthand the issues and challenges they are facing daily. I am often asked, “What are the important issues?” and I want to provide an inside look at the challenges your staff at USApple is focusing on.

Labor: Agricultural labor reform remains our top legislative priority. An increasingly dysfunctional H-2A guest-worker program, coupled with an increase in I-9 audits and the return of Social Security “no match” letters, have left growers without a stable labor force. On June 15, federal E-Verify legislation was introduced in the House and Senate. USApple is working with our allies in Congress to make the case that “enforcement alone” will put U.S. producers out of business, hurt rural economies, and jeopardize our food security. Legislation must include meaningful agricultural labor reforms that fix the broken guest-worker program and address the current work force.

The E-Verify legislation is expected to move through the House Judiciary Committee this summer with a vote by the full House as early as September. At this time, no schedule has been set in the Senate. A number of states have instituted mandatory E-Verify laws, and the impact on agriculture has been immediate and devastating. In Georgia, more than 12,000 workers are needed, and crop losses have already totaled $300 million and could reach $1 billion.

MAP: Maintaining full funding for the Market Access Program is another top priority for USApple. The program helps fund the export promotion programs carried out by the Washington Apple Commission and the U.S. Apple Export Council, among others. The success of the program has led to a steady increase in apple exports, now averaging about 25 percent of the fresh crop annually. Even in this very difficult budget year, efforts to cut the program failed in the House. USApple is meeting with members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committee to urge full funding for the program as the fiscal year 12 spending process continues.

Stinkbug: Since its arrival in this country in the mid-1990s, the brown marmorated stinkbug has caused increasing damage to apples, peaches, and other crops in much of the Mid-Atlantic region. The pest’s resistance to conventional and integrated pest management control programs is leaving many growers anxious. USApple has worked to alert growers, policy makers, and researchers to the critical need to find new methods for controlling this threat to agricultural production. With the pest now confirmed in 33 states, we are pushing for resources to support the research effort both with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and in the development of a $10 million research grant proposal submitted by more than 50 scientists and 10 research institutions through the Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI).

Food safety: I continue to hear how the costly and time-consuming process of multiple food safety audits plagues the produce industry. USApple is working with our partners in the United Fresh Produce Food Safety Steering Committee and the Technical Working Group to develop a standardized food safety audit system to ­eliminate or reduce duplicative food safety audits.

Increase consumption: The association maintains an education program the main objective of which is to increase consumption of apples and apple products. Each year, we fund a handful of health research studies that, through outreach to various media outlets, help us promote apples and apple products. In addition, we maintain strong relationships with media contacts across the country and especially at leading media publications for women including ­Cooking Light, Better Homes and ­Gardens, and Self magazines. By building these relationships, we seek to be seen as the source for anything related to apples and apple products.

Crisis communications: In addition, the education program works to prevent apples and apple products from being viewed negatively. We work to identify emerging communications issues and guide industry efforts to address those issues. Our comprehensive crisis communications plan has helped us when media attempt to tarnish the image of apples as America’s favorite home-grown fruit. USApple staff constantly monitor all media for potential issues while also ­reaching out to key influencers.

National Apple Month: This is the only national, generic apple promotion in the United States. Founded in 1904 as National Apple Week, it was expanded to the month of October with the primary goal of increasing apple sales. It has three main components: an annual retail display contest for retailers and military commissaries, in which participants can vie for up to $14,000 in prizes by submitting details on store displays that meet the judging criteria; crowning the Outstanding Apple Merchandiser of the Year at the Annual USApple Outlook meeting in August; and annually acknowledging a direct or farm marketer who excels at promoting apples and apple products with the Golden Apple Market Award.

Outlook conference: USApple’s annual Apple Crop Outlook & Marketing Conference attracts industry leaders from around the world, representing all segments of the apple industry, including production, packing, processing, sales, marketing, and new products. It is an ideal forum for meeting, collaborating, and networking with others in the apple industry. I hope you will join us for ­Outlook 2011, August 18-19 at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Chicago, Illinois.

For more information, visit our Web site at www.usapple.org or contact the USApple office at (800) 781-4443.