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AgJOBS Apathy?

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, May 2, 2007

The other day we happened to run two unrelated stories that came to be an interesting industry experiment.

We ran Taylor Farms And Dole Veg Paying Up For Food Safety, which dealt with the fact that Taylor Farms and Dole had both announced price increases tied to the costs of implanting food safety programs.

We also ran AgJOBS Gets ‘Pull’ From PMA While United And Others Provide The Push, which elaborated on an industry-wide effort to pass the AgJOBS legislation to ensure adequate harvesting labor.

The Taylor Farms/Dole piece had a link to letter Dole sent its suppliers regarding the price increase.

The AgJOBS piece had many links to ways individuals and companies could lobby legislators, help PMA or help United on this effort.

The one link to the Dole pricing memo received more than a hundred times the number of clicks on the AgJOBS piece.

What could this mean?

Well one possibility is as John McClung, President of the Texas Produce Association, mentioned in a letter he sent us on the issue of a possible PMA/United merger:

Finally, perhaps most important but also most difficult to characterize, the segments of the fresh fruit and vegetable industry simply don’t have the tradition and history of activist political involvement. Individuals in the industry don’t see the need to get their hands dirty in Washington — or their state capitals, for that matter. They don’t think they can play the game; they don’t know how and they don’t want to learn. They think if they approach their members of Congress on some issue, all that will happen is they’ll get donation solicitations for the rest of their lives. And, they think lobbying is what they pay United, the regionals, and recently maybe even PMA to do.

I’ve often said that lobbying for the industry is like being a proctologist: your clients know they have a problem and need your expertise, but they want you to get in fast, get out fast, tell them as little as possible about what you saw, and keep the bill to a minimum. The problem with all of this is that real political strength comes from the proverbial grass roots. The industry’s hired guns, including United’s staff, play a key role in educating Congress and the regulatory agencies, and — whether one approves or not — in making timely campaign contributions from the various Political Action Committees. But at the end of the day, the best lobbyist is good old what’s-his-name from the Congressperson’s home district.

So, perhaps produce people just don’t have a taste for lobbying and government relations.

Another possibility is that PMA’s argument isn’t strong enough to raise a lot of interest by the buy-side of the industry. After all, if there is a labor shortage in the harvesting of crops, the most likely result is not starvation, but an increase in produce imports.

Now this may raise some issues that need to be resolved in areas such as food security, but they are not really business interests of retailers, foodservice operators and wholesalers. It is hard to make a case that, long term, where fruit is harvested makes a big difference to Wal-Mart or Costco.

A third possibility is that many industry members who might have supported the AgJOBS bill have been alienated by overreaching. The bill is filled with provisions, such as changing the way wages are figured, that have nothing to do with increasing the availability of labor.

Fourth is the possibility that produce industry people who are not directly affected by the issue are more focused on national immigration issues. We’ve heard from several people who basically say cheap farm labor is a drug and damaging to the country. As one important buyer wrote us:

… we haven’t attributed the correct cost to our cheap labor. Thirty percent of California prison inmates are in the country illegally. There are 20 murders per year in Salinas, a city of 150,000 people. The city spends almost $1 million on a gang task force every year. These are social costs that are borne by all the citizens of the city and state, and aren’t accounted for in the cost of the produce.

Our own sense is that the bill, as written, is designed to meet grower desires almost exclusively — so it is a difficult bill to sell to those who have other concerns.

This obviously affects how legislators perceive the legislation, but it also affects how people at other produce sectors perceive the bill.

Perhaps this accounts for the relatively tepid enthusiasm we are sensing in the trade.

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