While acknowledging the importance of farm bill programs that provide research funding and promote fruit and vegetable consumption, industry leaders speaking to the House Agriculture Committee hearing on July 12 also made it clear they desperately need farm labor solutions.
The hearing, called “The Next Farm Bill: Technology & Innovation in Specialty Crops” featured speakers from California, Florida and Texas.
“While it is outside the jurisdiction of this committee, we ask first and foremost that Congress move rapidly toward allowing a legal workforce in the United States to guarantee that future immigrants who desire to work in American agriculture be allowed entry,” Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, told the committee.
The shortage of workers could be made worse by enforcement first policies, Paul Heller, vice president of Wonderful Citrus Texas, said in his testimony.
“Should anyone still believe the myth that foreign workers who harvest specialty crops are taking jobs from Americans, I invite them to talk to growers across the country and learn the simple truth,” Heller said in his prepared remarks. “Americans by and large will not do these jobs.”
Heller said it is “critically important” that any enhanced enforcement is done in a way that supports a workable agriculture guest worker program.
The next farm bill should prioritize research on water and labor-saving automation, Kevin Murphy, CEO of Driscoll’s, Inc., told the committee.
In his testimony, Gary Wishnatzki, owner and CEO of Wish Farms, Plant City, Fla., said he believes the USDA could play a role in reforming the H-2A program, which is now run by the Department of Labor.
Among other moves, Wishnatzki said the USDA could:
- Establish quotas for the total number of workers needed monthly for all crops in the U.S.;
- Establish a clearinghouse to point workers to areas and farms where they are needed; and
- Issue agricultural work visas to workers with agricultural work experience, and stipulate agriculture as the industry that they are allowed to work in and it stipulates the time they are allowed to stay.
While research into automated harvesting has much promise, he said the potential is still some years away.
“Depending on the commodity, it may take anywhere from five to ten years for automation technologies to be perfected to the point they can be utilized effectively in the field on a large scale,” Wishnatzki said.
While House Agriculture Committee leaders expressed support for the specialty crop industry, they made no promises to address labor in the next farm bill.
House Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said that specialty crop industry is in a “unique position.”
“Consumer demand is increasing but natural resources remain fixed and the labor supply is shrinking,” Peterson said in his prepared remarks. “It seems to me that the key to being successful will be through the wise use of technology and with an optimum regulatory structure that allows innovation to flourish.”
House Agriculture Committee chairman Mike Conway, R-Texas, said in an opening statement that farm bill programs including the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, the Plant Pest and Disease Prevention Program, the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, the Market Access Program, the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Grant Program and expanded crop insurance have all helped specialty crop growers.
However, he told Politico July 13 the next farm bill would not take up farm worker visas, telling the media outlet that work on labor issues would be left to House Judiciary Committee led by Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.