Vic Smith on ‘Soapbox’ for Yuma Ag, School Children

Sep. 29th, 2012
Joyce Lobeck

Not only is Vic Smith a busy farmer and agribusinessman as part owner of several produce coolers, he believes strongly in giving back whether serving on the local hospital board or as a tireless advocate for agriculture at the national level. After all, he firmly believes, “If you have an opportunity to be at the table, you can be part of the solution.” He recounted his first meeting as a board member of the United Fresh Produce Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade organization for the fresh fruit and vegetable industry. He said he was sitting quietly in the corner throughout the meeting when members were asked if there were any other issues. “I asked if anyone else was concerned about labor issues,” Smith said, explaining to the group that Yuma was experiencing 20 to 25 percent labor shortages. “They looked at each other and decided they needed to take up the issue,” he said. Until then, Smith said, the guys in Washington, D.C., and Salinas tended to overlook Yuma even though this area is the winter produce capital of the country. Not only has his national involvement allowed him to be a voice among lobby groups and policy-makers for Yuma’s agriculture industry — and it’s biggest cheerleader — it has also given Smith an opportunity to get to know major buying organizations for the crops he and other Yuma farmers grow. “They like hearing from the guys in the trenches,” he said. And it helps both producers and buyers better understand each other’s problems and issues. Smith toured Costco headquarters and got a firsthand look at the store’s perspective — the quality, value and appeal of foods they need to keep their customers happy. And he’s talked as colleagues with the vice president of Darden Restaurants (parent company of Olive Garden and other popular restaurants), which is one of the largest users of iceberg lettuce in the country. “It’s broadened my perspective of the buyers,” Smith said. “They’re not just trying to beat us down on prices. They buy the food in their stores from us and they have a lot of skin in the game, too.” One event stands out from his five years on the United Fresh board. He was at a breakfast meeting on Sept. 14, 2006, hearing about issues that the Food and Drug Administration was having with leafy green vegetables grown in California. Later that day, the FDA announced it was recommending that people not eat fresh spinach. “We were in the building overlooking the Potomac River just sitting down to dinner,” Smith recalled. Cell phones were going off and executives of big retailers were leaving the tables. “By midnight, all the spinach products were pulled off shelves. It was devastating to our industry. It was such a wake-up call (about food safety) and I was at the epicenter when the bomb was dropped.” The produce industry reacted quickly and under the leadership of Western Growers, a leafy greens marketing agreement was crafted that established food safety standards for the production and processing of fresh vegetables in California and Arizona. Today, Smith is second chair in line to be chairman in three years of the executive committee for Western Growers, which serves the California and Arizona produce industry. And he is involved with Produce Marketing Association, an organization he described as an extremely active group of retail executives in the food service industry. There he reminds them they need to buy from suppliers like those in Arizona and California who follow safe growing practices to protect themselves from foodborne illness outbreaks. “I feel like I’m on a soapbox,” he said, but one person told him he needed to hear that message. Smith’s involvement also is closer to home. He moved to Yuma in 1977 and got involved, serving on the Yuma County Planning and Zoning Commission, the Yuma County Airport Authority, Greater Yuma Economic Development Corp. and Yuma Regional Medical Center Operating Board. “The more people I met in the community, the more I cared about it.” He continues to support the Yuma Community Food Bank. And he is the sponsor for the newly launched POWer PLAY’te, a campaign to promote the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables by elementary school students. The campaign already is garnering attention from outside Yuma, and Smith thinks it would be very satisfying if a program that originated in Yuma could have a national impact.

Joyce Lobeck
Staff Writer
The Sun
Sep. 29th, 2012