Editorial: Change Before You Have To

In this space last month, I talked about the significance of E-Verify legislation, which has been passed on the state level in Georgia and was recently introduced in the U.S. House Judiciary Committee by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX). No doubt you’ve already seen many of the headlines coming out of the Peach State, which ironically faces the prospect of many peach growers being forced to leave their crop hanging on the tree if they don’t have the ability to harvest it.

I ended that column with a brief call to action, urging you to contact your elected officials and explain to them why this issue is so critical. This month, I’d like to expand on that discussion, and reinforce that this is not an issue that you can or should throw your hands up in the air over, as if there’s nothing you can do about it. True, the topic of immigration reform is such a contentious one that it can seem difficult to have a logical discussion about it. However, there are two things you can do in response to this pending crisis facing our industry.

Reduce Your Labor Dependence

The first step you can take is to look inward at your own farming and production systems, and determine any short- and long-term changes you can make that might at least reduce your dependence on a skilled labor force. This may seem like a daunting task, but here are a few examples of how any grower, regardless of their size, can make this happen.

● Mo Tougas, this year’s Apple Grower of the Year, farms on about 120 acres in Northboro, MA. He’s involved in the H-2A program, and while he only recruits a very small number of workers through the program, these employees are the backbone of his production crew.

Tougas is always on the hunt for the most efficient production systems, and with his latest venture into fruiting walls, he’s found one that also looks like it will be easy to manage. By hedging horizontally once a year, he’s able to limit seasonal pruning activity while making it easier for tractors to pass between the rows. He is still experimenting with hedging timing, but sees these fruiting walls as a viable option for the future.

● In our February issue, we profiled McDougall & Sons in Wenatchee, WA. Scott McDougall is a believer in the H-2A program, despite its complexities, because it gives him the advantage of having a trained and skilled work force for his 2,500-acre orchard every year. His emphasis is on recruiting the same pool of workers back to the farm each year, so he doesn’t have to go through the process of training someone new on an annual basis.

● Orchard mechanization is something every grower should be considering. The investment costs may be substantial, but as our own “Tree Fruit” columnist, Washington State University’s Jim McFerson, has touted, mechanization with the use of platforms and automated harvesters might be the only way of ensuring a viable long-term future for the fruit industry.

An Opportunity With United Fresh

The other thing you can do when it comes to the topic of E-Verify is to get involved in the discussion and make sure your voice and your concerns are heard. This is, of course, easy to say, but in the very near future, there is a direct opportunity you can take advantage of.

The United Fresh Produce Association’s Washington Public Policy Conference takes place October 3-5 right on Capitol Hill. The event is designed to allow you to meet face to face with lawmakers to discuss the most critical issues affecting the future of your operation, and the produce industry. Several of our editors, including me, have attended this meeting, and can vouch for how effective it can be.

One benefit is that United Fresh does much of the work for you. Prior to visiting House and Senate office buildings, you and your colleagues will review the biggest topics you want to address, and you’ll come up with a list of the most effective talking points. United Fresh will even set up your complete schedule in advance.

Once the event is over, however, the rest is up to you. Don’t let this personal visit be the ending point of your involvement. Continue to follow up with the individuals you met during your lobbying visit. If you make a good impression, chances are they will remember you and be more willing to continue the dialogue.

Finally, I would encourage all of you to read the August cover story of our sister publication, American Vegetable Grower. The article provides a first-hand account from some of the nation’s largest vegetable growers on the implications of a mandatory federal E-Verify program. As one grower said when asked about the potential impact of E-Verify legislation: “We’d be out of business.”

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