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Pundit’s Mailbag — AgJOBS vs. Lou Dobbs

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, March 16, 2007

Looking over the broad scope of subjects we cover in the Pundit, one astute reader asks if any of theses issues will matter if we can’t get the crops harvested:

With much interest I read yours and others comments on so many different issues. Food Safety, Organics, Tom Stenzel in Ireland, and the list goes on, and usually each piece provides interesting facts, policies, predictions, opinions and suggestions.

The Pundit does, in fact, incite reactions and cause good thinkers to think harder and longer on topics that are current and newsworthy. My hat is off to your ability to keep this exciting.

With that said, I would like to invite everyone to consider all of the Pundit’s topics over the last few months, and ask yourself this one question: How would all of these issues and topics be changed if we do not have adequate labor supplies to harvest the crops?

Would the long debate on how to handle the next E. coli crisis happen, or would the argument over mandated food safety regulations or mandatory cider pasteurization even be issues? Would Wal-Mart care about organics if they are still on the tree or in the ground? As much as the Pundit might deserve the Jesse H. Neal Award for his fine writing abilities, if we did not have the fruit harvested, would the story be the same? Of course not.

I am not suggesting that the Pundit or others don’t appreciate and understand the issue before us, but what I am saying very loud and clear is that the American people that elect our representatives do not understand the problem.

Never was this more evident than my recent visits to over 13 New York Congressional offices last week. Let me be clear, some of our elected officials, in fact many of them, do get it, and they did understand what adequate farm labor means, but their constituents do not. That is crystal clear!

The AgJOBS bill that has been around longer than the Perishable Pundit’s column has, is our only hope for a workable labor reform bill that addresses the needs of guest workers to harvest America’s fresh foods.

While we in the industry may all agree on this, WE do not have the support of the voters of American. Lou Dobbs reaches more Americans in one hour then our entire industry does in a week. He has a message, we have one also, but which one is getting out?

Last year New York growers suffered untold losses because of labor shortages, and that was before the wall went up. And guess what, we were lucky compared to some other areas. The wall may not be completed but the effect of the wall is starting to work. Ask any Valley grower in California.

So people, what do we do and how do we do it and when? When is now. Fact is, if an AgJOBS bill does not get through both houses before August, as they say in New York, Fergetaboutit!! After summer break, all attention will be on the elections, (again) and no one will address immigration.

What do we do? We need to make noise, we need to reach out to Congress in droves of people and we need to wake up America to the possibility of higher priced food from outside sources, for increased food safety concerns, to an economic disaster to our economy, because of skyrocketing food costs and farm business going out of business.

Perhaps on the upside is that million of acres of productive land could be diverted to corn to produce ethanol and lowered fuel costs. Could you imagine having milk cost more than gasoline? Impossible, right?

I totally agree with the Pundit that providing our consumers with safe and secure food is vital, but we can only do that with US grown and harvested food. Hell, we can’t control or regulate the importation of people into this country, how could we expect to control food safety for food grown in other countries? After this rant, we can be making progress if the only thing that comes out of it is that you who read this, the members of our industry, take a moment to reach out to your Congressional leaders and ask them to pass AgJOBS now.

Or, perhaps, you convince your barber or your accountant or your dentist that they need to look at the entire immigration issue and understand the issues that it presents. If you convince just one person not to believe the Lou Dobbs of the world, to take his word as gospel, perhaps they may pass that on. What do you have to lose……….you answer that one!

— Jim Allen
President
New York Apple Association, Inc.

Jim’s letter is poignant, and you can hear in its tone the deep connection Jim has with the apple growers of New York. He is the perfect representative, because he both grasps the abstract issues of public policy and feels the pain of his growers when crops are left unharvested.

Here at the Pundit, we’ve dealt with immigration issues a number of times, most recently in our piece Ag Jobs Take 2.

And Jim catches the horn of the dilemma clearly when he talks about Lou Dobbs. It is not Lou Dobbs, per se; if he didn’t exist someone else would be spouting his position. The problem for the industry is that the issue has a high enough saliency with ordinary Americans that Lou Dobbs is talking about it at all.

There is an iron law in politics that as interest in an issue expands, the ability of any particular interest group to influence the outcome of a legislative battle contracts.

So United, PMA, WGA and the Northwest Horticultural Council, the Michigan Apple Committee and the New York Apple Association can probably have a lot of influence on rules related to how apple trees are treated for tax purposes, an arcane issue not much in the public eye. Yet the same groups can have very little influence on an issue of broad public interest, such as general income tax rates.

Now Jim’s point is that much depends on how an issue is perceived. If the immigration issue were perceived as, principally, a food and ag issue — in other words that America’s problem with immigration was that we did not have enough immigrants to harvest crops — we would wind up with a very different policy than if the perception is that we have lost control of our borders and must reassert it.

So, Jim, quite correctly, notes that a grassroots effort to redefine the issue to Congress and the American people could serve to speed passage.

So such efforts are recommended but it seems difficult to believe that enough minds can be changed quickly enough to get the bill passed in the next few months.

So the question on the table is if our industry government affairs experts believe they can make this happen. If so, then as Jim says, we need to roll up our sleeves and start making contact.

If not, we need to look at modifying the bill in a way that will answer its critics and win their support or, at least, acquiescence.

They key thing the produce industry is searching for is a guest worker program. On the right, the critique is that this will not be enforced, that guest workers will not leave the country. So we’ve suggested a fee being applied to each guest worker and that fee being used to fund special officers whose sole purpose is to monitor guest workers. If the worker doesn’t leave on the appointed day, there must be an instant APB and special teams searching to find the outlaw.

On the left, there are two concerns: first that guest workers depress wages for Americans and non-citizen workers in the country, second that we are creating a second class situation where individuals are deemed good enough to work in America but not to be citizens.

The Pundit suggested that a long, say 40 year, phase-out of the guest worker program would make sense. It would allow the produce industry to change the debate to focus on the transitional help the produce industry needs as it transitions to a more automated form of harvesting.

The current situation is very bad. We know of investments not being made, of acres not being planted, all because of the real possibility that when the crops will be ready, there will be nobody to harvest them.

This is bad for the industry and bad for America.

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