THE WEATHER WAS GOOD, the setting was beautiful, but all was not well in the land of the tomato growers. The government was not happy. On September 8, the 24th annual Joint Tomato Conference opened at the Naples, FL, Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Peter Harllee, Jr., Chairman of the Florida Tomato Committee, had just received a letter from an administrator with the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service scolding the committee for its lack of diversity. The Committee advises the USDA on tomato policy and federal regulations in Florida, and makes recommendations on tomato marketing and packing.
"I am concerned about the committee's lack of significant effort and commitment to increase participation of women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in the nomination process," wrote Kathleen Merrigan, a USDA diversity enforcer.
"I will ask the committee to conduct new nominations for my consideration. Current committee members will continue to serve until I appoint the new committee," her letter decreed.
According to industry representatives, the problem—if there is one—is like getting blood from a turnip (or a tomato). The committee isn't "diverse," because the tomato-growing industry isn't diverse.
"I just don't know of any women or minorities in the business," says Wayne Hawkins, manager of the Committee and executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange. "If there is a minority tomato grower in Florida, I don't know of any. They don't exist and she won't accept that."
Nevertheless, the Committee launched a comprehensive campaign to publicize the nominations. Hawkins was shocked by Merrigan's charge that the committee didn't put forth a "significant effort" to attract minorities, women, and persons with disabilities. He says that the Florida Committee conducted extensive outreach in order to diversify the nominees.
"We did everything we possibly could to meet their [USDA's] requirements," argues Hawkins. "We contacted every known tomato grower, every packing house, every county extension director, and many newspapers. Several newspapers even wrote articles about our search. This is government harassment." If it is harassment, Hawkins can take some solace in the fact that the Florida Tomato Committee hasn't been singled out by the USDA or the Clinton Administration.
"Let's just say it's an across-the-board effort," says Merrigan. "This is the last opportunity in this administration to make appointments. We're just following through on this administration's pledge on diversity."
Several USDA committees have already received rejection letters from Merrigan and, she declares, many more letters are going out. "From soybeans to beef, to onions in south Texas. The winter pear control commission in Yakima, WA, is going to get one. We're ratcheting it up everywhere. "
Even California, the state with the most racially and ethnically diverse population in the U.S., has a small minority tomato-growing contingent. "About twelve percent of fresh tomato growers in California are Hispanic, and about four percent are Asian," according to Don Dressler, of the Western Growers Association, a trade association representing the fresh produce industry in California and Arizona. "We have a very small black grower population in California agriculture, and the tomato industry."
Meanwhile, Merrigan has demanded a detailed outreach plan from the Committee before she will approve the new nominees. "If this is our last opportunity to make appointments, when do you stop saying 'please' and start saying, 'you must'?" Merrigan says she is not necessarily opposed to taking another look at the Florida data. "If Florida can document that there is absolutely no way to achieve diversity, well… we'll scrutinize it very carefully to see if it matches our data."
Wonderful. Your government at work.
© COPYRIGHT 1999, NEWS CORPORATION, WEEKLYSTANDARD, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.