As California fruit growers wait for effective tools to mechanically harvest their crops the association that represents about 85 percent of the industry is on offense, hoping to secure wins in water and labor issues.
Former Congressman George Radanovich is nearing his second full year as president of the California Fresh Fruit Association, a voluntary membership organization with over 300 members representing 13 permanent fresh fruit commodities.
Just as he was taking the helm of the association, now in its 82nd year, the industry was stinging from new state laws that significantly changed how agricultural employers pay overtime, plus increases in the state’s minimum wage — both of which promised to raise the cost of doing business for fresh fruit farmers and their colleagues across the farming community.
“When I took over the association a year and a half ago, many members expressed that they were ‘tired of losing,’” Radanovich wrote in his annual message to members in April. In response to those early conversations with members, he and staff embarked on an approach to “take the offensive” in issues facing association members and agriculture.
Water and labor
Survey California farmers up and down the state and the top issue they likely will cite is water. The cost of labor, and regulatory burdens associated with it, are also high on that list, particularly because the industry must rely on labor-intensive harvest crews to pick fruit. There are stories to suggest that labor shortages across the agricultural spectrum last year left growers with unharvested fruit.
The water bond planned for the November ballot will be one the organization works to pass, Radanovich says. Already, it has helped to raise $2 million to get the necessary signatures, which he says should be tallied and verified shortly.
The $8.7 billion water bond includes over $3 billion in money that will directly benefit agriculture, he says. Of that amount, $750 million will directly fund repairs to the Friant Kern Canal, which has seen water deliveries to districts from southern Tulare County to Arvin curtailed by over 60 percent due to ground subsidence at a critical turn in the canal. Another $660 million is earmarked to meet demands associated with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, with $200 million to go toward Oroville Dam issues.
The Friant Kern Canal repairs “is a big deal” for farmers along the southern half of the canal, Radanovich says. “Conveyance opens the door to other projects and to help store excess flows.”
Like water, an ample supply of qualified labor is crucial for farmers who grow fresh fruit. The association is taking a two-pronged approach to the issue — one focused on California’s unique issues, and a nationally-focused approach that hopes to deal with U.S. immigration policy.
“After we were beaten down by AB 1066,” the state law that significantly changed overtime regulations for agricultural workers, he says the association was put in touch with a farm labor contractor from Delano, who ultimately formed the Central Valley Farmworker Foundation, an organization that helps provide services to farmworkers.
The California Fresh Fruit Association (CFFA) helped get the fledgling organization off the ground, with the goal of empowering agricultural laborers not represented by the United Farm Workers to have a voice in legislative issues in Sacramento and Washington.
“If we can get 20,000 to 50,000 farmworkers in this foundation, we could encourage them to go to Sacramento and be a strong voice for change,” Radanovich says. “That’s our only cure for the bad influence that the UFW has on the California legislature.”
He says the UFW represents less than 1 percent of farm laborers in California. His hope, through the new farmworker foundation, is to reduce the influence of the UFW in Sacramento.
Radanovich, who was elected to Congress in late 1994, served California’s 19th congressional district until 2011, a region that previously spanned a portion of the San Joaquin Valley’s eastern edge, and the western flank of the Sierra Nevada. He also farms wine grapes in the foothills of Mariposa County.
With his experience in Congress, Radanovich says, the CFFA will work on federal immigration policy changes that address four issues: border protection, e-verify, a guest worker plan, and an adjustment of status of the illegal population already in the U.S. “If we’re going to resolve immigration without doing great harm to our farmers and domestic food supply, then we need these four things.”
He agrees that adjustment of status — most know this as “amnesty” — will never pass Congress. That’s why he hopes to work with the president to address issues that Congress won’t take up, but that the administration can address. He believes that even getting a good guest worker program will be a stretch for Congress.
Part of this effort could include U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who has already made several trips to California since being confirmed, and is gaining an understanding of issues facing agriculture in the Golden State. Because of Perdue’s interest in California agricultural issues, Radanovich believes he could be a key advisor to President Trump in helping address U.S. immigration policy issues that won’t wreak havoc on the state’s $100 billion agricultural economy.
Labor issues will remain critical for the fresh fruit industry, even as it works to develop mechanized means of harvest and other traditionally labor-intensive practices. “Our crops are the most challenging for automated practices,” he says. “This is why labor is so important to us.”
Aside from concerns related to water and labor, Radanovich says, free trade remains a concern.
“We would rather not get into a trade war — and frankly, would prefer that NAFTA be left alone,” Radanovich says.
California fresh fruit growers could have benefitted from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a process of negotiations between the U.S. and 10 other countries, according to Ian LeMay, director of member relations and communications for CFFA.
Those export opportunities changed, however, after President Trump’s nomination, when he withdrew the U.S. from the negotiations. “We do think that if we had stayed with TPP, California growers would have benefitted,” LeMay says.
CFFA has already been in contact with Perdue’s office, Radanovich says, and hopes that perhaps direct conversations with the Secretary Perdue could help to promote important issues with the White House.