Farm Bureau leaders seek results in Capitol
By Christine Souza
During a meeting at the U.S. Capitol, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, left, and California Farm Bureau Federation Second Vice President Jamie Johansson discuss the tightening labor supply in California and the urgent need for immigration reform.
Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, talks about specialty-crop programs in the 2012 Farm Bill during a meeting in Washington with Stanislaus County walnut and almond growers Jake Wenger and Eric Heinrich.
An election year can be a difficult time to bring about significant policy changes, but a delegation of Farm Bureau leaders from California urged congressional representatives last week to reform federal immigration laws by providing a solution for the existing immigrant workforce and a viable visa program for future employees.
"Farmers are once again starting to feel the pinch of worker shortages," said Rayne Pegg, California Farm Bureau Federation National Affairs Division manager. "The trip served as a reminder to Congress that we can't afford another year of no action."
A group of 17 Farm Bureau members, including the 2012 Leadership Farm Bureau class, visited members of Congress on Capitol Hill for two days of meetings. In office after office, they heard that the political situation in an election year makes significant change difficult, especially regarding a controversial issue such as immigration reform.
American Farm Bureau Federation Executive Director of Public Policy Mark Maslyn said, "Politics this year are very difficult, so you have to change the politics so that there's more risk by not acting."
Meeting with members of the House of Representatives who sit on the judiciary and agriculture committees, farmers provided firsthand examples of challenges they have faced in hiring and maintaining skilled employees to harvest crops and manage livestock. The delegation urged representatives to take action to avoid labor shortages.
In a meeting with House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, Chase Renois of Santa Cruz County, who works in the berry business, emphasized the need for immediate solutions. Renois told McCarthy that finding enough labor to harvest berries is "getting competitive."
CFBF Director of Labor Affairs Bryan Little, who also serves as chief operating officer for the Farm Employers Labor Service, said many growers report difficulty finding employees at a time of the year when workers are normally available. He said he is concerned this may be a sign of things to come.
"Farmers are telling us that the workers they usually see in the spring just didn't show up this year," Little said. "Growers beginning work on early spring crops like sweet cherries are extremely short on workers, and they're spending more time looking for people than they are actually doing farm work. If this persists into the summer, the industry could be headed for some serious problems."
Farm Bureau members continued to stress that Congress must include a solution for the agricultural workforce if it adopts mandatory E-Verify legislation. Legislation in the House would mandate use of the electronic verification system, which checks against Social Security numbers and Department of Homeland Security records.
Farmers and ranchers say mandatory E-Verify would damage one of the country's top economic contributors unless it also incorporates a way for farmers to hire a legal, stable workforce at the times and places employees are needed.
In his meeting with Farm Bureau members, McCarthy acknowledged the situation growers face right now, and the impact that mandatory E-Verify could have.
Supporters of mandatory E-Verify say farmers should be able to use H-2A, the existing agricultural immigration program. However, Little said, the program has proven inadequate and California farmers use H-2A on a very limited basis—only 3,503 employees were certified through the H-2A program among the estimated 400,000 hired farm and ranch workers during peak seasons.
The group also visited with Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Gold River, and thanked him for his proposal to create a new, market-based "W" visa program for agricultural employees. It would allow immigrant workers to enter the U.S. through a program that requires a biometric visa, criminal background check and incentives for them to abide by the terms of their visas and return home when the work is done.
The Farm Bureau leaders also discussed priorities for the 2012 Farm Bill. Leadership Farm Bureau class members Eric Heinrich and Jake Wenger, who each farm walnuts and almonds in Stanislaus County, met with Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, and stressed the importance of maintaining farm bill programs for specialty crops. They added that the farm bill should include support for projects to help farmers comply with air quality regulations.
The Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee has approved its version of the bill and lawmakers say they plan to bring it to the Senate floor within a few weeks. The House Agriculture Committee has not drafted its version. The 2008 Farm Bill is set to expire in September. (See related story, Page 18.)
"The Farm Bureau trip to Washington is an opportunity for congressional members to meet the farmers and ranchers who have to live with the laws they make every day," Pegg said. "It's easy to forget the impact a law has once it's implemented on the ground. Growers are living it every day."
Farm Bureau members also met with a representative of the Environmental Defense Fund, to discuss the many ecosystem services farmers and ranchers provide—such as open space, wildlife habitat and water quality—for which EDF advocates.
Elisa Noble, CFBF director of livestock, public lands and natural resources, introduced EDF Agriculture Policy Director Sara Hopper, who described how EDF and other conservation groups work with Farm Bureau on areas where they share common ground.
Eloise Fischer, rancher and public lands grazing permit holder from Calaveras County, said she was encouraged to hear that EDF recognizes the connection between public lands grazing allotments and associated private ranchlands. EDF and CFBF are both part of the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition.
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.