Specialty crops hearing debate turns toward labor needs
March 17, 2017
A House Agriculture subcommittee hearing March 9 on the effectiveness of the government's specialty crop programs took a turn toward the debate over immigration, an issue over which the House Agriculture Committee does not have direct jurisdiction.
James Field, the director of business development for Frey Farms, a Keenes, Ill., firm, noted that he is a member of the United Fresh Produce Association and said, "It is not possible to give a full and accurate perspective on federal policies that most affect our sector without mentioning immigration."
Field said Frey Farms "does its best" to make the H-2A program administered by the Labor Department work, but "it is very difficult."
"Frequently we, like other participants in the program, do not get the adequate number of workers we need in a timely manner," Field said. "Given the highly time-sensitive nature of harvesting fruits and vegetables, it is essential to get workers when we need them.
"The vast majority of the nation's foreign-born farm workers do not have proper work authorization and the emphasis on enforcement without an accompanying effective legal ag guest-worker program, puts our industry, and our nation's ability to sustainably and affordably feed our people, in jeopardy," he said.
"We urge you to do what it takes to ensure that whatever immigration legislation Congress debates does not become final without a mechanism for addressing agriculture's real and urgent labor needs," Field added.
"Failure to address these needs will undermine all the good work you have done to support specialty crops through legislation like the farm bill — and ultimately you would fail to serve the farmers and ranchers this subcommittee is designated to represent."
Field and other witnesses urged the subcommittee to continue the programs that have benefitted the specialty crop industry, which is composed of fruits and vegetables and tree nuts.
Neither House Agriculture Biotechnology, Horticulture and Research Subcommittee Chairman Rodney Davis, R-Ill, nor House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, mentioned the immigration and labor issues in their statements after the hearings.
"I am glad to hear the success these programs have had and look forward to working to improve them even more in the next farm bill," Davis said.
Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N. Mex., the subcommittee ranking member, said in her opening statement, "I am struck by the extraordinary diversity of your businesses in both products, practices and size. You grow at the level of tens of acres, hundreds of acres, and thousands of acres producing a wide variety of crops as apples, oranges, carrots, bell peppers, lettuce, grapes and of course, New Mexican chile."
"Our job in Congress is to assist and promote what you do as producers, and I look forward to working with the chairman, as we write a new farm bill, to provide you with the tools so that you can invest in your businesses, research new technology to improve yields, improve pest resistance and plant health, and find new markets for your crops both domestically internationally."