Agriculture lobby looking to shed light on immigration

In this day and age, the word “lobbyist” has grown to become a word of disdain and derision. It’s almost as if the term has become synonymous with graft and corruption.

However, as I was reading through a couple of blog posts written* by Craig Regelbrugge, the American Horticultural Industry’s vice president for cultural relations and research, I was reminded of the important role lobbyists are supposed to play in the U.S. government.

Agriculture lobbying

Not everyone’s going to know ever detail about the agriculture industry.

In the most simplistic explanation, a lobbyist is supposed educate members of congress about their subject of expertise. In a perfect world, lobbyists are supposed explain all sides of an issue and give validity to one of those points of view over others.

The reason why this is so important is that our elected officials don’t know everything. (I know there are some of you out there that are inserting your own “They don’t know anything” joke here.)

Let’s take the first and latest U.S. presidents for example: George Washington grew up in and around tobacco farming and was formally educated as a surveyor. Barack Obama is a lawyer with a political science/international relations background who lived and worked most of his life in urban areas.

If I can take the liberty of putting Washington in a modern context, he would most likely have a great handle on the importance of labor in the agriculture sector, but may need assistance in understanding how certain regulations can adversely affect Silicon Valley. On the other hand, Obama would probably not need help understanding the nuances of negotiating international trade deals but he wouldn’t have the background knowledge of the day-to-day operations of a commercial greenhouse operation.

Enter a person like Regelbrugge, who can bring his knowledge of the horticulture industry to Washington (the district, not the president). Part of his job is to explain the business of horticulture to elected officials who may never have planted anything in their lives — or even owned their own business for that matter.

Where a lobbyist’s job becomes most important is when they’re tasked to break through rhetoric and assumptions to try to find reasonable solutions.

AmericanHort lobbying to educate about immigration reform

As I’ve said a few previous times, the horticulture and agriculture industries had wink-and-nod agreements with the federal government to look the other way when it came to hiring illegal immigrants. That may sound unthinkable in this day and age, but this was a time before terrorists and criminals were crossing boarders undetected.

Combine that with the United States moving away from its agrarian roots, and a few decades of parents telling their children that blue-collared jobs are beneath them, you end up with a perfect storm that can cripple the horticulture industry if massive immigration reform is installed without care.

In one of his latest blog posts, Regelbrugge said the Agriculture Workforce Coalition, which AmericanHort is one of the 70 member organizations, penned a letter* to Vice President-Elect Mike Pence and the Trump Administration transition team in an effort to begin a conversation about immigration. The letter explains how farmers across the country are scrambling to find available and qualified workers. Here are some of the statistics they gave:

  • A 2012 survey by the California Farm Bureau found that 71% of tree fruit growers, and nearly 80% of raisin and berry growers, were unable to find an adequate number of employees to prune trees or vines or pick the crop.
  • According to a 2015 analysis by the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, the lack of available labor to match the demand for fresh fruits and vegetables with expanded production costs the US economy $3.1 billion a year.
  • In the dairy sector, a separate Texas A&M study in 2012 found that farms using immigrant labor supply more than 60% of the milk in the country. A complete loss of immigrant labor in dairy farming could cut U.S. economic output by $32 billion, resulting
    in 208,000 fewer jobs nationwide. 77,000 of the lost jobs would be on dairy farms, but most of the losses would be other jobs related to dairy farming.

The letter goes on to explain the AWC’s intention isn’t to fight immigration reform but to make sure it’s done in a way as to not cripple their industry. The organization is lobbying to have the H-2A visa program improved and extended to cover all the necessary migrant and seasonal workers needed to keep up with demand.

Another valid point in the letter is the fact that the jobs at the bottom of the rung in agriculture are the backbone to the whole operation, as pointed out in the third statistic listed above. For each person with their hands in the dirt, production increases, which creates more jobs along the “food chain” from processing and transportation to marketing and retail to manufacturing.

So with this letter, the AWC is attempting to bring a different side to the immigration reform conversation. We’d like to think there was an easy solution to the U.S. economy, such as, “If all illegal immigrants are sent back home, American citizens will fill all the jobs.” But just looking at that first statistic from the AWC, it’s just not the case. If Americans were willing to take any job to support their families, the fruit tree, raisin and berry growers in California wouldn’t have that large of an issue filling jobs.

Agriculture lobbyists are on the right path

This is the way lobbyists and lobbying are supposed to work. I wish all lobbying was done in a public forum. I’d like to see all meetings with lobbyists broadcast on TV — maybe create a CSPAN-4 or something. For one thing, it would be hard to send money under the table when you’re live on camera.

Reading through the whole letter from the AWC, there’s nothing that gives lobbyists a bad name. Not only did the AWC spell out their point of view and back it up with statistics, but also they showed they are willing to work toward a solution.

And when you’re willing to work toward a solution instead of working toward getting your way, conversations can be had. If I were on the other side of the table and also trying to work toward a solution, I might suggest the AWC form a partnership with mikeroweWORKS to try to find ways of encouraging Americans to learn a skilled trade in agriculture. It wouldn’t solve the labor need entirely, but it would certainly bring the two sides closer together for a solution.

It looks like the agriculture world is in for a bit of a roller coaster ride until these issues become clearer down the road. But as Chris Schulte from CJ Lake told AmericanHort a couple of months ago, the best bet is to stay prepared for whatever happens.

Whether it’s immigration reform or overtime ruling, make sure your greenhouse or farm is equipped with up-to-date human resources software, like Sage HRMS, to stay up with any changes in legislation.

I’m sure there will be more on this to follow. We’ll keep you posted on any changes.

*-Must be an AmericanHort member to view in full.

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