YAKIMA, Wash. — After more than a decade of pushing for meaningful immigration reform, agricultural industry representatives say they have one of their best opportunities during the next few months.

“I feel more optimistic than I’ve felt in the last five to seven years,” said Nancy Foster, president and chief executive officer of the Vienna, Va.-based U.S. Apple Association.

She said she based her outlook on efforts by a broad agricultural coalition that includes the American Farm Bureau Federation, which had not been involved in earlier efforts.

Health care was the Obama administration’s first-term signature issue, said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for Washington, D.C.-United Fresh Produce Association. And he said he believes immigration reform will be the second-term’s signature issue.

Their comments came during a morning-long session on hot industry issues at the Washington Horticultural Association annual meeting, Dec. 4, in Yakima, Wash.

Of all the immigration issues, revamping the H-2A guest-worker program is one of the highest priorities, Foster and other speakers said.

The need for a workable guest-worker program came to light two years ago, when growers in many parts of the country had to let crops rot because they couldn’t find enough harvest crews.

“If you can’t prune, pick, pack or process your fruit, little else matters,” Foster said. “Apples will be packed here by farm workers or by foreign workers overseas and imported.”

Jeff Crist, a partner in Crist Bros. Orchards Inc., Walden, N.Y., said he didn’t experience a labor shortage in 2012 because of a smaller apple crop.

But in the past, he’s had to turn to the H-2A program to bring in labor.

Not knowing whether there will be enough workers from year to year makes long-term business planning difficult, he said.

“I consider it our biggest business risk because labor is approximately half of our total cost of production, and we don’t exist without an adequate, available and legal labor supply,” Crist said.

The H-2A program is onerous because it requires growers to apply at least 75 days out, to provide housing and transportation, and to guarantee job duration, among other requisites, Foster said.

From year to year, growers — even if they’ve used H2-A workers before — never know if the U.S. Department of Labor will approve their applications, said Jon Wyss, government affairs director for Gebbers Farms, Brewster, Wash.

A proposal he and others have been crafting would be more realistic and more market-based, Wyss said.

It would expand the definition of agriculture to include packinghouses and processors, which are excluded under the current program.

It also would remove mandatory transportation and housing provisions, remove the guaranteed work period and allow workers to follow jobs from farm to farm.

But it would still maintain the requirement that workers have an initial job offer to come into the U.S.

If passed by Congress, the new proposal would not replace the current H2-A program. Instead, it would provide another option, Wyss said.

The industry’s best window of opportunity in Congress is from January through March, he said.

If it gets into May and there isn’t a bill on the table, he said Congress probably will become distracted with budget discussions and continuing resolutions.

One of the more contentious issues may be the path to legalization, Guenther said. Past efforts have tried to tie an ag workers’ ability to gain legal work status to working so many months in the industry.

In the end, he said the industry may have to choose its battles.

“It’s going to be very critical that this new guest-worker program is the best we can come up with,” he said. “We have to have a comprehensive, workable national guest-worker program.”