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Kroger and Harris Teeter deal gets early approval from FTC

The Kroger Co. and Harris Teeter Supermarkets Inc. announced that the Federal Trade Commission granted early termination of the waiting period under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976 with respect to the pending merger transaction between the two companies.

The early termination of the HSR waiting period satisfies one of the conditions to the closing of the pending merger, which remains subject to other customary closing conditions.  Both companies expect the transaction to be completed before the end of January.

On July 9, 2013, Kroger and Harris Teeter announced a definitive merger agreement, which was approved by the boards of directors of both companies. On Oct. 3, 2013, Harris Teeter shareholders overwhelmingly approved of the merger agreement. At the closing of the merger, Harris Teeter shareholders will receive $49.38 in cash for each share of Harris Teeter common stock they own.

Colorado water situation is a Tale of Two Basins

A comparison of water resources and availability in two of Colorado’s geographic regions reads like a Tale of Two Basins.

Dave Nettles, division engineer for Div. 1 of the state engineer’s office in Greeley, CO, said prospects in 2014 have greatly improved in the South Platte River Basin. The basin services agricultural producers located within or near the state’s most populous metropolitan area, the Front Range. Last year was turbulent for the region’s fresh producers, who saw their ability to irrigate severely curtailed.

Craig Cotten, Nettles’ counterpart in Div. 3 in Alamosa, CO, talked about conditions in the Rio Grande River Basin and Colorado’s San Luis Valley. He summed things up this way: “We have a low of 66 percent of average to a high of 97 percent of average,” he told The Produce News in early January. “We’re the lowest basin the state.”

According to Cotten, a study released this past December by the Bureau of Reclamation of the U.S. Department of the Interior reported on the future of water in the Rio Grande. Cotten said the report stated that lack of precipitation is expected to reduce water volume by one third by 2090.

The situation in southern Colorado contrasts sharply with conditions in northern Colorado.

“Snow pack is about average for the South Platte,” Nettles said, adding that rainy conditions this past fall had two significant effects in the region. Rain caused dramatic flooding in the region, but also filled the state’s irrigation reservoirs to full or near-full conditions.

The state engineer’s office continues with rule-making processes to address water use and conservation. In northern Colorado, Nettles said final rules were adopted to regulate well metering. Agricultural producers are required to be part of water augmentation plans approved by Water Court, or they must obtain approval of a substitute water supply plan. Nettles said the substitute plans are temporary in nature.

In the San Luis Valley, Cotten said the state engineer’s office is looking to finalize rules and regulations for groundwater use by April.

“I think we’re on track,” he told The Produce News.

The first self-regulating groundwater management subdistrict, whose operations are in full swing, covers five of the valley’s six counties. That subdistrict is charged with the responsibility of collecting user fees to purchase augmentation water and begin the process of replenishing the aquifer in the Rio Grande Conservation District to sustainable levels.

Within a year of completion of these regulations, Cotten said other subdistricts will be created in the valley.

“We’re contemplating seven,” he said. “But that’s a little up in the air. Most areas will have subdistricts.”

Once created, he said agricultural producers will have three choices: join a groundwater management subdistrict, secure augmentation water or stop pumping.

Both areas saw difficult fire seasons during 2013. But the effects to each were radically different.

Nettles said turbulent flooding had the net effect of washing away debris and ash from water. Sweet corn had already been harvested when the September flooding began. However, Nettles added that some onion stands were damaged as a result of flooding.

In southern Colorado, Cotten said agricultural producers are anticipating high levels of ash in water during 2014.

On other fronts, Cotten said Colorado, a party to the Colorado River Compact, is being brought into a lawsuit filed by Texas against New Mexico. Officials in Texas have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, which alleges that New Mexico is using more water than it is allowed under the interstate compact.

Kerry uses Famous Idaho Potatoes as diplomatic gesture in Syrian peace talks

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry put a smile on the faces of everyone on both sides of the table at the Syrian peace talks at the U.S. Ambassador's home in Paris Jan. 13 when he presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with two large "Famous Idaho Potatoes."

Just as the meeting was about to get down to serious discussions over a tense situation, Kerry lightened the atmosphere with the gift, inviting reporters into the room to record the moment.

As he took the two jumbo-sized potatoes out of a large white box, Kerry explained that Lavrov had talked about "Famous Idaho Potatoes" to him in a conversation a few weeks earlier, validating what Frank Muir, president of the Idaho Potato Commission, has said on many occasions regarding how well Idaho potatoes are known around the world.

Muir told The Produce News Jan. 16 that although the presentation of the potatoes to Lavrov and Kerry's specific use of the phrase "Famous Idaho Potatoes" was a huge publicity coup for the Idaho potato industry, the Idaho Potato Commission did not have a hand in the event. It was something Kerry, who has spent time in Sun Valley and is very familiar with Idaho, did on his own.

But the fact that both Lavrov, in his previous conversation with Kerry, and Kerry in making the presentation, used that trademarked phrase, is evidence of how successful the commission's promotional programs have been, Muir said. "That is just the impact of our advertising."

The expression "Famous Idaho Potatoes" is "clearly in [Kerry's] everyday language," Muir said.

"I have traveled to nearly 30 countries, and as soon as I say 'Idaho,' the folks say 'potato,' and they always say it with a smile," Muir continued. "That means that Idaho and potatoes have a very positive connection with people around the world."

Kerry's gesture, perhaps knowingly, perhaps inadvertently, may also help the Idaho potato industry and the U.S. potato industry as a whole, in their efforts to gain access to the Russian market.

"In the past two years, the IPC has been involved in two trade missions to Russia" in an effort to open Russia's doors to fresh Idaho potatoes, Muir said. "We hope the Russians will, in the near future, be able to experience fresh Idaho potatoes for themselves."

Jalisco avocado growers advocating for entry into U.S. marketplace

About 15 years ago, when Mexican avocados began to gain partial entry to the U.S. marketplace, the only groves and packingsheds eligible to export were those located in the west-central state of Michoacán.

Access to the United States has increased to all 50 states, but the point of origin still must only be groves and packing plants in Michoacán. While Michoacán is the largest producing area for Mexican avocados, it is not the only area.

JaliscoavocadosJalisco growers produce about 30 million pounds of avocados annually.Recently, five more municipalities in the bordering state of Jalisco, which is to its north, were certified quarantine-pest free, and growers from that area are now advocating that packingsheds and groves in those pest-free areas also be granted access to the U.S. market.

Some Jalisco growers have been informally asking to be included since their first municipality was certified quarantine-free by the Mexican government's pesticide agency in 2008.

With the certification of the five new areas, Ignancio Gomez, executive director of the Jalisco Avocado Growers & Exporters Association, which goes by the acronym APEAJAL, said that now more than 8,000 of the 15,000 commercial avocado hectares (about 20,000 of 37,000 acres) in Jalisco are certified pest-free. He believes it is time that those acres be granted access to the U.S. market.

In October, Gomez and other representatives of APEAJAL came to the Produce Marketing Association convention in New Orleans and advocated for their inclusion in the Avocados From Mexico program. The group signed a Memorandum of Agreement with APEAM, the grower group representing Michoacán avocados, and is moving forward to adopt all the reporting and technical requirements that exporters from that state follow.

Gomez said the Jalisco growers believe they have satisfied all the phytosanitary requirements and just need the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal Plant & Health Inspection Service to come to Jalisco and certify the sheds and groves, as they have done with Michoacán.

Gomez is not sure whether Mexico has formally asked the U.S. government to grant entry to certified Jalisco growers, but he believes if the request hasn't happened it should happen soon.

"We have talked to USDA officials so they know about Jalisco," he said.

Since Jalisco growers began increasing their plantings about a decade ago, Gomez said the total acreage has grown to about the aforementioned 15,000 hectares (37,000 acres), with about half of that being mature groves. Unlike Michoacán, he said the overwhelming majority of that acreage is irrigated, which has created a different season than the neighboring state.

While both areas can produce avocados year-round, Gomez said Jalisco's heaviest production is in the summer, which is in direct contrast to Michoacán.

He estimated that about 150,000 tons (300 million pounds) of fruit are produced by these Jalisco growers.

"About 60-70 percent of that is sold domestically and about 30 percent is exported," he said. "Currently, we export to Canada, Japan, Hong Kong, Europe and some to Central America. We are very used to the export culture."

Asked how quickly he expects Jalisco to be able to sell its avocados to the U.S. market, Gomez said, "That's the $1 million question. We hope to gain access by the time we begin our new season in June."

He said the vast majority of Jalisco avocados are produced from June to March, with the three summer months being the peak period.

Jensens ask judge for probation

Eric and Ryan Jensen, the owners of the defunct Jensen Farms in Holly, CO, have asked that a federal judge sentence them to probation. The company produced cantaloupes that were tainted with Listeria in 2011. During the outbreak, 33 people died and another 147 were sickened in the United States.

Last October, the Jensens pleaded guilty to six counts of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce. Each of the brothers may each face up to one-year prison sentences and a fine of $250,000 per charge.

The Jensens will be sentenced in federal court in Denver on Jan. 28.