REEDLEY, Calif. -- A recent ceremony at the United States Department of Agriculture headquarters in Washington honored two tree-fruit packers from here, who each received a Hammer Award from Vice President Al Gore.
The awards, presented to Rick Schellenberg, president of Schellenberg Farms, and Dan Gerawan, president of Gerawan Farming, were created to recognize federal employees and partners in the private sector who have achieved success in efforts to "reinvent government." Schellenberg and Gerawan were cited for their leadership in implementing the "Partners In Quality (PIQ)" inspection program for stone fruit.
According to the California Tree Fruit Agreement, the PIQ program aims to reduce the amount of time federal-state inspectors spend in sheds looking at fruit. Schellenberg explained that the program, which has very stringent requirements, "shifts the responsibility and the cost from the government to the individual packer for quality control." He said that under the program, packers must develop a manual, which must be approved by government regulators. Then a company's own personnel monitors quality control, but government auditors conduct spot checks "to see if you're doing what you said you were going to."
Schellenberg noted that when the program was launched in 1998, two large, two small and two medium-sized California packers of peaches, plums and nectarines were selected to participate. But by the end of the program's first year, only three of the companies continued in PIQ. All three combined represent only about 7% of the California tree-fruit crop.
"Some packers at first figured this was a way to get the inspector out of their shed, but then fell by the wayside after realizing how much effort it takes to implement," Schellenberg said.
As an example, Schellenberg pointed out that in PIQ, "you can't average within." He explained that "for peaches, 8% defects are allowed in USDA #1 grade. If you're at 10%, you're out of grade, but if you do the next 100 at 6%, you're OK, because it averages to 8% defects.
"In PIQ, every sample stands on its own," he added. "It causes more monitoring and more consistent product, enabling the consumer to buy a better product."
The California Tree Fruit Agreement maintains that under PIQ, the cost of inspecting fruit is only 1.6 cents per box -- a dramatic savings below the traditional cost of 5.1 cents per box. And, while cost reduction may be an issue, Gerawan said the primary focus of the program is quality product.
"When the [tree-fruit] industry originally looked at PIQ, it was looking for a cost-savings program," he said. "PIQ is not that. It probably costs more. But we're in it because it provides us with validation for our higher-quality product."
Gerawan and Schellenberg, who both remain strong advocates of PIQ, agree that in time, crops packed under PIQ may be able to command higher pricing. "We're allowed by USDA to use a special shield to identify our product," said Schellenberg. "Once we reach a critical mass where PIQ produce is identifiable, we can look at premium pricing."
USDA Under Secretary Mike Dunne presented the awards on behalf of Vice President Gore. Officially, Gerawan and Schellenberg were honored for "putting customers first, empowering employees, cutting red tape, achieving results Americans care about and successful partnering between government agencies and the private sector."
"Cutting bureaucracy, empowering the customer -- PIQ fits that like a glove," Gerawan remarked.
Schellenberg is hopeful the award will attract more participants into the program. He said that in addition to California tree fruit, several large Florida citrus packers are already in it.