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Specialty crops take center stage at farm bill hearing

Panelists hit on a number of important topics for U.S. specialty crop producers during Wednesday hearing. House farm bill write-up expected to begin in mid-May.

Despite the fact that immigration reform is in the wheelhouse of the House Judiciary Committee, the topic was front-and-center during a Wednesday (April 24) hearing of the Subcommittee on Horticulture, Research, Biotechnology, and Foreign Agriculture. All panelists were largely complimentary of the recently proposed Senate legislation immigration.

For more, see here and here.

The hearing took place just as Oklahoma Rep. Frank Lucas, House Agriculture Committee chairman, again vowed a mid-May start to the writing of a new farm bill. The committee will work off the House farm bill version (full coverage here) that was cobbled together last year.

Back at the subcommittee hearing, panelists were asked what changes they’d recommend for immigration policy.

“A very strong ag guest-worker program is critical to any type of comprehensive immigration reform bill,” said Sarah Frey-Talley, president and CEO of Frey Farms in Keenes, Illinois. “In the current bill that the Senate has, we support that framework and think that’s a workable solution for agriculture.”

Read Frey-Talley’s prepared statement here.

The Senate group that put the labor bill together presented good proposals, said William Brim, president and owner of Lewis &Taylor Farms, Inc. in Tifton, Georgia. Still, “some tweaking needs to be done. But moving the program to a three-year visa was a good thing.

“In my district, I still get calls all the time from farmers who think (the lawmakers) haven’t been able to get the wage rate right. That’s another problem.”

Read Brim’s prepared statement here.

Brim also believes the 112,000 cap on visas is too low for the first year. The concerns are aggravated for “the third year, when Blue Card holders leave agriculture and we have to go back to the H-2A or some other contractual program.

“The other thing is mediation is a non-binding agreement with legal services. If we’re going to have mediation then it should be binding. Why should we have to mediate it, they agree to a mediator, and they still take us to court? They take us to court and we have to spend another $500,000 on something we haven’t done wrong. That’s horrendous, I think.”

The timing of the Boston Marathon bombings has also allowed some immigration reform naysayers to latch onto terrorism as a reason not to proceed with system changes.

California Rep. Juan Vargas, in contact with “a lot” of farming constituents, said he asked them “if there was one thing you could fix what would it be? They say ‘immigration.’ They say insurance policies don’t work for them but immigration is the biggest issue...

“Have you ever seen a terrorist running around your farms? Anyone become radicalized out there with the tomatoes or jack-o-lanterns? Anything like that? There’s a notion of radicalized immigrants – have you seen any of those guys out there on your farms?”

“No, sir, I have not,” answered Brim. “We do have some problems on our farms but it isn’t from terrorism, I assure you.

“We’ve been doing the H-2A (visa) program since 1998. We have the same (workers) coming back year after year. … We’re a 12-month business. We can’t do it 10 months and stop. And all our employees keep coming back so they’re well-trained – we don’t have to recruit and re-train each year. That’s very different.

“But we think the H-2A program is cumbersome and litigious. However, we like having (workers) coming back each year and having a trained workforce.”

U.S. citizens, said Brim, “will not do” the needed work.

In California, said Vargas, things are different. The undocumented field workers “aren’t seasonal. They live there. Supposedly, those are a lot of the people that would be able to gain legal status in this country” under the Senate plan. “Is that the case anywhere else?”

There are illegal workers in Georgia, as well, said Brim. “There are about 18 growers in the state that do the H-2A program. The balance is based on illegal or domestic workers.”

Brim again rued the fact that “domestic workers won’t work on our farms.” In 2012, between January and July, “I hired 1,650 domestic workers. At the end of July, you know how many I had? None.”

When Georgia passed HB87, which “destroyed” the illegal portion of the workforce, “it cost the ag community about $140 million. We definitely need some new regulations.”

STAX, burdensome regulations

On a different subject, Barry Bushue, who farms in Oregon and is an American Farm Bureau Federation vice president, advocated for allowing program crop producers the options of “either a Stacked Income Protection Plan (STAX) or a target price program, on top of participation in crop insurance and marketing loans, as the three legs of a safety net.” This would mean a “STAX program for all program commodities, as well as for apples, potatoes, tomatoes, grapes and sweet corn” plus providing “a target price program for all program commodities, with the exception of cotton.”

Read Bushue’s prepared statement here.

STAX, Bushue said, “is an insurance product designed to provide a fiscally responsible and effective safety net for program crop farmers and growers of tomatoes, potatoes, apples, grapes and sweet corn. The program would be administered by USDA’s Risk Management Agency in a manner consistent with the current crop insurance delivery system. It is designed to complement existing crop insurance programs. It does not change any features of existing insurance policies.”

Benefits of this STAX approach include addressing “revenue losses on an area-wide basis, with a county being the designated area of coverage. In counties lacking sufficient data, larger geographical areas such as county groupings may be necessary to preserve the integrity of the program. The ‘stacked’ feature of the program implies that the coverage would sit on top of the producer’s individual crop insurance product.”

Bushue also reminded the subcommittee of the value of U.S. specialty crop production. In 2012, some 17 percent of the $391 billion in agriculture cash receipts came from the sector.

What about making block grants more effective?

The SCFBA (Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance) has offered several suggestions,” said Frey-Talley. “For example, we’d like to see more timeliness in the announcement of funding available to ensure states have plenty of time to review requests. States could pursue more grower-level projects that address grower needs.”

Frey-Talley also pointed to the need for “greater consideration of multi-state projects, which have been a fraction of the projects” approved.

On Frey-Talley’s operation, “five farms in several states we’re growing the same commodity throughout those regions. Often, the specialty crop industry faces challenges that affect an entire commodity, or region. The coordination from states working together to develop projects would serve producers well.”

Florida Rep. Ted Yoho said an example of that is citrus greening disease currently hammering production in some states. In Florida, the invasive pest-vectored disease, “has cut production about 50 percent and (the problem) extends all the way over to California.”

More on citrus greening here.

Yoho then asked the panelists what agency is the most burdensome to their industry. The agencies named, as expected: the Department of Labor (DOL), the EPA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The “EPA, DOL and FDA have placed so much more burdensome rules on us in the last five years,” said Brim. “The cost of doing business has probably gone up 25 percent just (due) to government regulations.

“I’ll give you an instance with the EPA. We wanted to put a boiler system in our greenhouse operation. At the time, it would have cost $250,000 to put it in. Well, with the EPA’s regulations on new boiler emission standards, the cost went to $750,000. So, I couldn’t do it and had to back off.”

The regulations “are tremendous,” continued Brim. “We’re all very considerate about food safety but think the FDA has gone overboard. I’m a cantaloupe grower and they’re fixing to come test all our farms. They’ll find something – either out in the field, or wherever. What I’d like them to do is test after we’ve packed, not in the field. We know it’s in the fields. We know it’s there.”

Brim also advocated fewer EPA restrictions on chemical companies being able to introduce products.

With regard to Farm Bureau views, said Bushue, “I think the EPA and the Endangered Species Act is probably driving the majority of what’s going on. I agree (with Frey-Talley and Brim) on the DOL and FDA, but on a broader scale, especially in the Northwest, the Endangered Species Act drives almost everything we do and costs us incredible dollars just to try and figure out ways to get water and the other (inputs) we need.”

Twitter: @dbenfarmpress

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