California Asparagus Plummets and USDA Automation Investment
**Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue announced the appointment of Paul Kiecker to serve as Administrator of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.
Kiecker will be assuming the role following the departure of Administrator Carmen Rottenberg, who is leaving after a career spanning two decades.
Perdue says ensuring the safety of America’s food supply is USDA’s most important responsibility, and that mission and drive will continue and advance under Kiecker’s leadership.
**20-years ago, California growers were farming 36,000 acres of asparagus. Today, that number has plummeted.
USDA numbers for 2018 show 6,000 harvested acres of asparagus, but currently as low as 1,000 acres.
Industry spokeswoman, Cherie Watte tells thepacker.com, the decline started after the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect in 1994.
With NAFTA, followed by the USMCA, the difference in labor costs for producing the “largely hand-harvested, sorted, and packed commodity” began to have a major impact.
Watte says the resulting regulations in California were the final nails in the coffin.
**With farmers reporting ongoing trouble in hiring enough people to harvest fruits and vegetables, the USDA says it has invested nearly $300 million in research into automation and mechanization of specialty-crop production.
In a report to Congress, USDA says it’s funded more than 200 automation projects during the past decade, and is also working to improve digital connectivity in rural areas.