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Pasquinelli a produce protector for almost 40 years
Gary Pasquinelli, head of the produce company his father founded more than 50 years ago, may focus his business in Yuma County but his efforts on behalf of the industry reach far beyond its borders.
A board member of Western Growers for close to 40 years, Pasquinelli frequently finds himself in Phoenix and Sacramento or even in Washington, D.C., as a voice for the growers in Arizona and California who produce much of this nation's fresh fruits and vegetables.
While many agriculture organizations have professional lobbyists, “nothing is better than hearing from the people in the field,” he said. “We need to tell our story. It's most effective coming from us.”
Pasquinelli can recall many of the battles he's fought for the industry.
One that stands out was when lawmakers wanted to do away with Arizona's tax credit for improvements to irrigation systems.
“We don't want to squander our water,” he said. “But the state's tax credit is a great incentive to invest in new equipment. I lobbied for it. I was told it was nice to hear from a person who would be impacted.”
Today, one of the toughest issues Western Growers is fighting is for a viable guest worker program, he said.
Locally, he said, the produce industry needs a commuter guest worker program for people who want to live in Mexico.
“Just give them a special visa and let them cross the border to work, not the draconian guest worker program we have now,” he said. “The biggest tragedy is we just can't get that fixed. The Department of Labor isn't trying to make H2A (the current guest worker program) work. Without that labor, the industry is in trouble. I've testified in Washington and told them how critical it is to the economy.”
Another sore spot, he said: “Don't put in employer sanctions without giving us a viable guest worker program.”
Pasquinelli is now a senior member of Western Growers' board, often serving with the sons and daughters of those he first served with. At the time he was first elected, he was the “young blood.”
He recalled how that came about.
In 1970 and 1971, United Farm Workers led by Cesar Chavez struck the cantaloupe industry in Yuma County, including the fields grown by Pasquinelli Produce Co.
“There was a lot of strife,” Pasquinelli said. “Cantaloupe is the most perishable crop in the world and we were able to harvest 1,500 acres the whole season. Western Growers was very involved, and the executive leadership was impressed with our labor relations and the way we protected our workers.”
That landed Pasquinelli on the Western Growers board while in his 20s. He's since been re-elected every year and served as chairman in 2000, “so I assume I'm doing a good job.”
One of the biggest compliments he was ever paid, he said, occurred in his 20s while he served on a committee negotiating with the United Packinghouse Workers Union. “One of the union negotiators told me that what was really upsetting to him was that his kids would have to deal with me.”
Pasquinelli also recalled with satisfaction his involvement in efforts to establish harvest strike insurance.
“As long as you are making an effort to harvest a crop in the face of union activity, you could get reimbursed for your growing costs,” he explained. “That was incentive to not cave in to union demands when it had the unfair advantage of a perishable crop. You have 120 trailers of cantaloupes in your yard and its 100 degrees outside and the workers sit down ... if you don't pack the melons, you lose them. At least this strike insurance gave growers an equal playing field.”
Pasquinelli has been active closer to home as well. He served multiple terms as president of Yuma Vegetable Shippers Association (now known as Yuma Fresh Vegetable Association). He also served three terms on the Agriculture Employment Relations Board, sat on Gov. Napolitano's Clean Colorado River Commission and most recently served on the Early Childhood Development and Health (First Things First) board.
Pasquinelli also believes strongly in managed growth and was at the table when the Joint Land Use Plan and the city of Yuma's General Plan were developed.
“When public input is asked for, you had better speak up or don't complain about it later,” he said.
Pasquinelli said the industry has been good to him and the best decision he ever made was to leave the law school library for the vegetable fields in 1967. And until his grandsons are ready to take over the business, he intends to remain at the helm.