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Pundit Mailbag —
AgJOBS Bill Needs More Support

Our piece Pundit’s Mailbag — AgJOBS vs. Lou Dobbs — featured an impassioned plea from Jim Allen, President of the New York Apple Association, Inc. for the industry to speak out and encourage the passage of the AgJOBS bill.

The piece brought a quick response from Charles Walker, Managing Director of the National Peach Council, pointing out the possibilities of the existing H-2A program. We published that response under the title, Pundit’s Mailbag — AgJOBS vs. H-2A. This mailbag included a special Guest Pundit from Robert Guenther, Senior Vice President Public Policy for United Fresh Produce Association, explaining the limitations of the H-2A program.

Now Jim Allen writes on the same topic once again but with greater urgency:

Recently at the PMA Produce Solutions Conference held in Charlotte, NC, we were entertained and educated on how to put the WOW into produce marketing, tap into the Trillion Dollar Mom Market, and grab some of the green from Affluent Shoppers.

It was an excellent conference, which provided produce buyers, marketers, suppliers and leaders important consumer knowledge. Other than my persistent comments to attendees away from the conference floor regarding AgJOBS , no mention or attention was given to the looming shortage of farm labor for this season.

I had a great conversation with Jessica Peri and Tim Cummings from Peri and Sons, a Nevada onion grower. Tim stated that they employed close to 700 H2A workers, and he did not share the same concerns that I do regarding a labor shortage.

I can understand his thought process, because his operation is enrolled in the only truly legal labor supply program, and assumes that they will continue to be supplied with legal labor. Many NY apple growers feel the same, but they also realize that H2A has its many problems and faults to overcome.

As Senator Larry Craig from Idaho commented, H2A was designed not to work and was created to win over the union vote in the 1960 presidential election. It created an off shore labor program that would not compete with the unions and domestic labor supply.

Amazingly, the program has survived, but is currently only supplying 47,000 workers out of the estimated 1.9 million farm workers. I believe that if we get Tim all the facts, he will better understood the need for AgJOBS and that includes H2A reform that would simplify his present programs.

I realize that the PMA conference was focused on consumer trends, and I know that PMA has strongly committed its support along with UFPA, FMI US Apple, ACIR, to AgJOBS.

Still, with over 300 attendees that all rely on the produce industry for their livelihood, some mention of the importance of this legislation could have been made. Since it was not, I urge all the readers of the Pundit and the entire industry to take action now.

Contact Congress and voice your support for AgJOBS. I will continue to make these pleas for as long as it takes to pass the bill or until the Pundit shuts me off. I hope the bill passing comes first. Come on produce industry, let’s get this done.

— Jim Allen
New York Apple Association, Inc
Fishers, New York

Jim need not worry about being cut off. This is an important issue and Jim’s letters are timely.

It is hard to get industry focus on an issue like this. First, of course, somehow or other, everyone is in business and we don’t have this law. If the proposal was to ban the H-2A program, you would get intense industry focus because those people who use the program would feel that they have something to lose.

Second, many, even in the industry, have somewhat mixed feelings on the matter. After we ran Jim’s first letter on AgJOBS we got a phone call from a wholesaler who, of course, wanted his producers to have enough labor but, politically, he was anti-immigration and simply didn’t see this issue as solely an ag issue.

And that may well be the thing that ultimately decides the matter. If industry lobbyists can get a straight up-or-down vote on AgJOBS, they may win.

But there is a strong possibility, maybe even a likelihood, that the industry will never get that straight up-or-down vote, that the bill will wind up as part of a larger immigration package and that larger package simply will be too controversial, too disputed and just will never move.

Our own sense is that many of things the industry doesn’t like about the H-2A program — such as the requirement to provide housing and money to get home — are precisely the kinds of things that are necessary to separate the ag labor problem from the broader immigration problem.

In other words, if there was a program where individuals (not families) had to be recruited outside the U.S., were flown here to work, given workforce housing, food, clothing and medical care, then flown back to where they were recruited and paid their season’s pay in their home country, it is possible that the likelihood of these individuals becoming part of the illegal immigration problem or a public charge would be so low that the industry could win the battle to have this ag labor problem solved separately from the immigration program.

This is especially true if the industry would simultaneously commit to invest in mechanical harvesting and agree to a phase-out of guest worker program over, say, 40 years.

Of course, reading political tea leaves is hazardous even for Pundits and our industry advocates may be able to make it happen and pass AgJOBS as it stands right now. If they are to do so, it will require a great deal of grass roots support, as Jim told the Pundit in a separate conversation

I can not stress it enough of how important it is for our collective industries to speak up, from the grass roots level. I am hoping that the Pundit can help this get done. For the life of me, I will never understand why any grower (that needs labor) would not take the 4 minutes it take to call and register your support for this issue.

This is a serious problem. A good friend of the Pundit is not planting certain field crops in certain states because of the real risk that no labor will be available to harvest the crop. For growers of tree crops such as Jim Allen’s New York apple growers, they risk having long-since sunken capital rendered worthless because they can’t harvest their crops.

So Jim’s urgency is well placed and, indeed, those concerned about this issue need to be speaking out now.

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