Specialty crop producers want technology, but workers are a higher priority | TheFencePost.com

Specialty crop producers want technology, but workers are a higher priority

The House Agriculture Committee hearing on innovation and technology in the specialty crop industry took some odd turns on July 12 when Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, said he couldn't understand why people think Congress has not paid attention to the specialty crop industry.

In turn, witnesses testified the innovations they need are years off and that, in the meantime, they need immigrant laborers to compensate.

In an opening statement, Conaway said, "(i)t baffles me when farm bill detractors question our commitment to specialty crops, implying our country lacks a national food policy because we treat specialty crops differently than traditional commodities."

Conaway said "the notion that we don't invest in specialty crops simply isn't based in fact" because the farm bill has included 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 Initiative — which aims to increase the purchase of fruits and vegetables by food stamp beneficiaries — and the Whole Farm Revenue crop insurance policies.

"Yes, the United States has long had an interest in ensuring stable production of our staple commodities, which is one of the reasons we continue to enjoy the safest, most abundant and most affordable food supply in the world," Conaway concluded. "But when you pull all of the pieces of the farm bill together, it's clear we've made huge investments to aid specialty crop producers as well."

House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., emphasized in his opening statement he's "proud that the 2008 farm bill (when he was chairman) was the first to acknowledge the growing demand for fresh fruits and vegetables, local foods and organic production. I'm also proud that we were able to continue and build on these investments in the 2014 bill. I hope this trend continues in the next farm bill."

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But the witnesses also made it clear they did not think specialty crops are getting their fair share. As Paul Wenger of the California Farm Bureau Federation put it: "Considering that specialty crop programs currently receive 1 percent of total farm bill funding and 4 percent of non-nutrition title funding, it's vital that increased consideration is given to the most critical needs of specialty crops."

Wenger added until the 2008 farm bill, "each farm bill reauthorization would make tweaks to price and supply calculations for the program crops, while growers of other crops such as fruits and vegetables were strictly subjected to the whims of the market with little to no government intervention, including access to adequate crop insurance products."

"These non-program crops came to be known as 'specialty crops,' which are now officially defined as fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture and nursery crops (including floriculture)," he said.

The most significant innovation that can be achieved on the farm is increased mechanization, but only 15 percent of U.S. Department of Agriculture research funds have been dedicated to specialty crops, Wenger said.

He called for Congress to address the need for mechanization in the next farm bill through "a dedicated allocation within the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, as well as funding through the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative that has previously assisted mechanization research by promoting and enabling collaboration between land-grant universities and top robotic engineering departments."

Workforce issues

But Wenger also said, "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 U.S. to guarantee that future immigrants who desire to work in American agriculture be allowed entry.

"We strongly oppose a mandatory E-Verify on employers until a satisfactory immigration path for agriculture is realized. We also caution members that fixes around the edges of H-2A won't alleviate the current labor shortage."

In his written testimony, Gary Wishnatzki, owner of Wish Farms, a Plant City, Fla., firm, echoed Wenger's sentiment regarding labor shortages.

"Labor shortages have cost us millions of dollars in lost opportunities," he said. "Having to walk away from a crop after it is made is very painful."

With the hopes of circumnavigating the waning numbers of individuals who are willing to take jobs in the fields harvesting specialty crops, Wishnatzki has co-founded Harvest CROO Robotics, a start-up looking to develop harvesting technologies and make walking away from crops a thing of the past.

But Wishnatzki said he still needs laborers, and has a hard time finding them.

Kevin Murphy, CEO of Driscoll's, a fresh berry producer based in California, said he foresees a future of automation due in part to start-ups like Wishnatzki's, but he doesn't believe the innovations will be able to fully take shape for five to 10 years.

Foreign laborers have less incentive than in the past to come to the U.S. and work in the fields, Murphy said.

Wishnatzki, citing a report by the Pew Research Center, added that more individuals are going back to Mexico rather than coming to the U.S. "The group of workers that we have is shrinking, aging and becoming less productive," he said.

Hoping to encourage more individuals from outside the U.S. to join the specialty crops work force, Murphy suggested "creating legal status to the workers that are here. … most do not want to become citizens, but they want some legal status that allows them to work here."

VISA PROGRAM

Peterson agreed, citing the shortcomings of the H-2A visa program, which allows foreign nationals to enter the country for seasonal agricultural work.

"That bureaucracy is horrendous," Peterson said of H-2A. "My idea is … if somebody is working for you — they have a job, not causing any trouble and they aren't in jail — they can be here and they can work, but there's not citizenship, and when they are done working, they go back home. That's what needs to be done."

Murphy responded that, while the agriculture committee does not dictate U.S. immigration laws, "we would respectfully ask that you help us in this endeavor.

"I'm there," Peterson answered.

After the hearing, Conaway emphasized that the farm bill will not contain a fix for the immigrant labor problem, Politico reported.

"Judiciary has full jurisdiction on that, and (Chairman Bob) Goodlatte having had the wonderful experience of being the chairman of the Agriculture Committee understands the need for a working program with respect to agriculture and is keen to get that done," Conaway said, adding there's "nobody better to solve this issue," Politico reported.

Goodlatte, R-Va., chaired the Ag committee from 2003-06.

Paul Heller, vice president of Wonderful Citrus' Texas Division, said the company is piloting new technology that grades the amount of decay present on an individual piece of fruit and provides high-resolution surveys of orchards to count missing trees.

But he added, "we urge you to keep the needs of agriculture in mind when considering any immigration policy. Enforcement-first or enforcement-only policies will be devastating to our industry. It is critically important for the specialty crop industry that any enhanced enforcement is done in a way that supports a workable agriculture guest-worker program."