SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, Texas — At the recent Texas Produce Convention, it seemed like food safety crept into just about every conversation, and the event’s agenda was stacked with speakers to address those concerns.
But labor and immigration isn’t far too far down the list when it comes to issues with which Texas citrus and vegetable growers have to contend.
One session at the Aug. 11-13 convention, regarding immigration and E-Verify mandates, triggered my memory and took me back to San Antonio, where the Texas produce industry convened for its convention five years ago.
Deep into George W. Bush’s second term, there was strong discontent among the Rio Grande Valley’s citrus and vegetable grower base.
Those growers, whose allegiance fell heavily on the Republican side, stood by as (Democrat-led) Congress quickly dropped immigration reform leading into the 2008 presidential race.
Even then, growers — not just of produce but all crops depending on a labor workforce — had been waiting for years for a resolution to the millions of illegal immigrants living in the U.S. and working in agriculture, construction, hospitality and other industries.
When Bush entered the White House, his campaign promise to work on the immigration issue was still fresh in growers’ minds.
His friendly relationship with then-Mexican president Vicente Fox only made the prospects of reform brighter.
Circumstances changed, of course, especially after 9/11.
Border security and the unease of undocumented people in the U.S. was a common theme whenever elected officials spoke in front of constituents.
At the San Antonio convention in August 2005, Texas Produce Association president John McClung described some GOP leaders as “dead-end ideologues” on immigration.
“We find ourselves now mad at the folks who used to be our good friends in the leadership of the House of Representatives over the immigration reform issue,” he said.
As we enter another presidential election cycle, I’m reminded of that label, although I’d pin that on a new group on the political landscape, the Tea Party.
Pundits can argue about how that group will frame the issues in the next year, but it seems unlikely labor and immigration regulations will fall in the direction that growers favor.
Add a spate of state laws that take a hard line on illegal immigrants, and it’s possible that the H-2A program will become the only option, despite higher wage mandates and more paperwork.
Texas certainly isn’t alone when it comes to the dire need for water, especially when it comes to irrigation needs. This summer has been brutal on producers, and one look at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s color-coded U.S. Drought Monitor shows an ugly smear of red and brown, denoting “extreme” and “exceptional” drought conditions.
So far, agricultural losses exceed $5 billion, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples told convention attendees Aug. 18. Although those losses don’t factor in specialty crops, you have to agree with Staples’ assessment that drought affects all agribusiness and the entire “great state of Texas.”
The Rio Grande Valley’s had its share of water woes, but more so in the past decade than in recent years.
As The Packer’s Texas writer for half a dozen years starting in 2000, I covered a border dispute over water held by Mexico in violation of a 1944 treaty between the two countries.
That issue also sparked some anti-Bush sentiment from valley growers, who remarked the former Texas governor was too cozy with President Fox and turned his back on their needs once in the Oval Office.
“At this point, you have to ask yourself if our government cares for us,” one citrus company executive told me, a refrain heard too often when growers congregate.
That’s nothing against growers — it’s just reality, whether dealing with labor, water or the biggest concern facing the industry, food safety laws.
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