Experts Target Labor and Other Growing Industry Pain Points

Experts Target Labor and Other Growing Industry Pain Points

Robert-Guenther-and-Craig-Reggelbrugge

United Fresh’s Robert Guenther (left) and AmericanHort’s Craig Regelbrugge (right)

What are some of the biggest issues you — the specialty crop growers and producers in the floriculture markets — are dealing with this year, and what is being done in Washington, DC, to help you?

What are realistic expectations of what you may see happening in areas such as labor, transportation, and the Farm Bill?

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The opportunity to speak with both Robert Guenther, who is Senior Vice President, Public Policy at United Fresh Produce Association, and Craig Regelbrugge, the Senior Vice President, Industry Advocacy & Research at AmericanHort, on a conference call provides us with answers to those questions, and more.

What are the biggest concerns facing the horticulture/agriculture markets for 2018 and beyond? 

Robert Guenther: The major, No. 1 issue for many years has been labor. That issue continues to face our industry. Every year it is a growing problem, facing the challenges of getting a secure workforce and having that available for the industry.

In other areas, I think that food safety continues to be an issue that people are working very hard at in terms of the fruit and vegetable industry. New regulations are coming into effect, and how they are going to impact the growing, harvesting, sorting, packing, and shipping of product to the distribution areas is another big issue.

 Craig Regelbrugge: From my perspective, and I agree with Robert, labor is certainly No. 1. Nearly a year ago, 14 to 15 farmers sat down in the White House with President Trump to talk about their top issue, and I’d like to report that the No. 1 issue was labor, the No. 2 issue was labor, and labor was the third most important issue, as well.

Obviously Robert and I both are working very actively in the agricultural element and are hopeful that we can see relief through any mechanism, whether it is legislative, which is what is ultimately needed. There is a lot of good that could be done through the administrative process, as well, although it would be more limited in its effect.

We are in a Farm Bill cycle, so that’s another area where we collaborate very closely with the specialty crop industry.

In our corner of the world, we are really struggling with the new trucking regulations, and there is a lot of concern about truck availability and truck cost with the regulations that took effect beginning back in December.

 Guenther: To Craig’s point, I would add that I agree 100% with these issues. Certainly transportation has been at the forefront in the last several months, including the rise in costs related to transportation and moving product around the country and internationally. What are going to be some of the solutions to that?

Where I think one way the industry has been digging deeper the last year and beyond is what we can do to increase the availability of transportation. The Farm Bill, and Craig mentioned that as well, is top of mind.

We expect a Farm Bill to be at least considered this year, hopefully finished. For the fruit and vegetable specialty crop community and nursery landscape, we are unique in a way because it is not a one-size-fits-all industry. There are many moving parts in the Farm Bill.

It does help the industries representing specialty crops here on the farm and beyond to look at the Farm Bill as one of the biggest single resources the federal government provides in areas like trade, research, pest and disease, nutrition policy, and state block grant programs. It is a tool box, as I like to call it, for the specialty crop industry.

Another area to mention is trade. I think our industry is very keen on trade and the impact the administration is having on trade discussions and negotiations. Obviously NAFTA is top of mind in our industry. How our administration addresses trade issues is going to be important this year and into the future.

Regelbrugge:  For the aspect of the industry that I represent, trade is an important issue, but to a lesser extent because we are trying to do some other things. We are trying to modernize and improve the phytosanitary certification side of things. For our portion of the industry, probably the issues contained in the Farm Bill that are relevant — the next most important thing on our radar — include research funding for pest and disease prevention and mitigation.

How are your organizations addressing these on Capitol Hill and making lawmakers aware of these issues?

Regelbrugge: On the ag side, the reality on the ground is we know at least half — and many believe it is quite a bit higher — of the current agriculture workforce that is feeding the country and sustaining our industries does not have proper immigration status. To be clear, employers have met the letter of the law in the hiring process, they view documentation which appears genuine, and these workers are employed on the books and they are having the same payroll taxes, etc., withheld from their paychecks.

The rest of the story is we have good evidence the documentation is problematic. We are dealing with labor shortages in a more significant way than I have seen in my career, and that is because nobody new is coming into the country, unless they are coming in on an H-2A visa. I should note we are seeing a rapid growth in the use of the H-2A program, even though in some respects it is a very unattractive program.

But we’ve got few people coming in and we’ve got people aging out. The average age of the workforce has risen pretty dramatically. The workforce is more settled and there is less willingness to migrate than we used to see in the past. All of these are factors, as well as interest in the economy elsewhere with workers who may have been in agriculture and could have been wooed out of agriculture by jobs in construction, hospitality, or some other industry. All of these things are squeezing us and we have a real workforce crisis.

I think the challenge at the moment, legislatively, is that no immigration conversation is going to happen without starting with DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program), the so-called “dreamers,” the young people brought to this country as minors who have grown up here, and in many cases have no recollection of the country they originally came from. That is the center of the immigration debate in Congress and nothing else will happen before DACA.

There is a question: Can other things happen with DACA? The White House articulated the pillars it wanted to see happen on DACA basically in addition to the DACA relief itself: border security, elimination of the Diversity Visa Lottery Program, and a narrowing of the categories of the family that are eligible to come to the country based on relatives here. The Senate has tried to come at it rather narrowly, and there is a proposal in the House that has significant but very partisan support, Republicans only. It’s Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), H.R. 4760 [Securing America’s Future Act of 2018].

There is a possibility that bill will be brought forward for consideration. It is very heavily enforcement oriented. It would mandate E-Verify across the entire economy. It would do both border and interior enforcement.

It does contain a set of ag provisions. Those ag provisions, I think it is fair to say, have some attractive features and also some points that are very, very concerning to most, if not all, of us working to represent ag. So we are still working to try to improve the ag provisions in the event that that package moves forward, but it is a very, very dynamic and volatile environment right now on the legislative front.

I would end by saying that we are hopeful and optimistic that this administration may soon be moving forward, making some improvements to administrative processes to the existing H-2A visa program. H-2A, as I mentioned, is rapidly growing and there are things the administration could do to make the program work better.

Guenther: It’s always good to do these things with Craig because he has such a great grasp on these issues. What I would add to this is that we have to constantly remind Congress, the administration, and others about the importance of addressing issues like immigration reform, the need for a workforce here in the U.S. that can help our growers throughout the year.

That can be done in a number of ways, whether that is coming here to Washington, DC, whether that is meeting with [Congressmen and Senators] out in their districts or their states. I know for a fact that different parts of our industries over the next several months are going to have people here [Washington, DC] once or twice a month for different meetings.

We just had our meeting in February, some folks from California were here recently, and for the most part immigration is the biggest issue. Craig is right, DACA is driving the immigration discussion at this time and it all starts there. And the question is: Where does ag fit in that discussion – if it fits at all? There is debate about that.

We think we have a good story to tell. We think we have made our case over many years, not just the last year or two, but many years, about the need for a workable guestworker program, about how to address the current workforce here in the U.S. If there is an opportunity, we feel we should be part of that discussion and debate. But it is a challenge; it is an uphill battle with Congress and the administration about getting their attention. That’s why having people here, talking to their elected officials — constantly — about the need for this and discussing the challenges we are seeing everyday out there in our industries is essential to answering the question: How do we address this on Capitol Hill and make lawmakers aware of this issue?

We’ve got people, not just association people like Craig and myself, but members of our industry, growers, and other parts of the industry who have been impacted by immigration, talking with members of Congress so they are not just hearing it from people here in DC.

In an ideal world, what would you like to see happen for your respective markets in Washington this year?

 Guenther: I’d like to see a new, expansive, working guestworker program and a way to address our current workforce in a respectful and reasonable way that brings them out of the shadows, in terms of labor issues. I’d like to see a modernization of NAFTA that is fair and balanced across all the different sectors. And I’d like to see a Farm Bill that basically doubles our resources that we have right now in the Farm Bill. So if I had an ideal world those would be the three things. I guess the fourth issue I would add in terms of transportation, as Craig alluded to earlier in this conversation, would be more drivers and better mobility of transportation for our industries.

 Regelbrugge: I’ll pick up on the transportation piece. Such a huge volume of our total business is done within a six- to eight-week window in the spring. Some of the good news for the fixes to what is ailing us with the electronic logging device mandate shouldn’t be that difficult to get to.

To share just two examples quickly: Commonly in our industry when a truck arrives at a destination, the driver is resting while the truck is being unloaded by the staff of the facility, but yet the resting time – the loading/offloading time – counts as drive time. That is just a specific example of where the reality doesn’t square with the regulation.

Another is we are fighting a major battle with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration over whether or not our producers are actually part of agriculture and fit within the existing agricultural exemptions. Those are things that I think are very much within reach.

Robert stated it well on the other issues. Labor, specifically, if I could have one wish — this would not be the wish for the outcome — it would be a wish for the process. If we could just take all 435 members of the House and the 100 U.S. Senators and transport them to an island that is free of media, particularly social media, and where they can sit down in a room together without the crazy daily pressures, we would have this thing solved. It is not unattainable. It is in our nation’s interest that we solve this problem wisely and move forward to other challenges. 

What is realistic to expect will happen? What would you consider wins for your respective markets, and for specialty crops/agriculture in Washington this year? 

Regelbrugge: The reality is that with many of these issues, certainly immigration in the workforce, it’s like a mutual colleague of ours in the industry in Florida once said: Getting good immigration policy is like doubles tennis — down the middle solves the riddle. And I think the solutions tend to be found closer to the middle.

The problem is with our political discourse. The middle is shrinking and it is harder to build out from the middle than ever before. I think a realistic outcome – and I hate to say this – but I think our odds of seeing some administrative relief with respect to the manner in which the existing H-2A program operates is probably a more likely near-term or medium-term possibility.

Guenther: I agree 100% with Craig in terms of realistic workforce issues. To add to that I would hope a Farm Bill could get reauthorized this year, and to borrow a term that is used around here for other issues: do no harm to specialty crop programs. Where we can see enhancements, which would be great, we need to make sure the policy works, make sure the resources are not compromised. The program we have established and built up over the last several Farm Bills if we could get that off the table this year that would be a good accomplishment as well.

How can the interest groups representing different specialty crops segments (floriculture, nursery, vegetable, fruit, citrus) work together more effectively to communicate cross-market issues and priorities?

Regelbrugge: For all of our organizations, coalitions really are the name of the game and finding folks who share common interests. I think as Robert and I are talking, and, on virtually every issue where we work together, the common interest is overwhelmingly large. Sometimes on immigration we find ourselves working with other interests that we might sometimes fight with, but we have some common interests and a solution to a difficult problem.

Coalitions are at the heart of what we do. The Farm Bill is the best example, and Robert’s organization is really a first among equals in that space. For years, our industries were unable to get the recognition we deserve for our size, scope, and economic contribution, and it wasn’t really until all the different specialty crop industries came together and said, ‘Look, if we don’t develop a common agenda, we will continue to be divided.’ That stands out as probably the best example of where we have achieved a lot just by virtue of the fact that we made a commitment to coming together and working together and having a common message and a common vision.

 Guenther: I couldn’t have said that any better. If something that has really evolved here in Washington over the last 10 to 15 years, it is the need for coalition development across sectors and across interest groups to push an issue or two. It is very rare at this point in time that you don’t see coalitions being a driving force behind any major issue confronting our country.

And Congress wants that. They want to see diversity of support and interest in an issue. The administration wants to see that. That is where I think the biggest bang for your buck is, as a group, get together and, as Craig said, really fight for a common interest, a common goal, that pushes a particular issue over the finish line.