What a critical time for the Western Growers’ Washington, D.C., board meeting! At the end of May, Western Growers’ Board of Directors joined the fray in Washington to fight for immigration reform, push for a farm bill and engage on the food safety legislation issue. The nearly week-long stay featured a number of critical meetings and discussions and I want to highlight the work that was done.
After months of negotiating, Western Growers, working as a part of the Agriculture Workforce Coalition, was able to come to an agreement with the United Farm Workers leadership, which was included in the Senate immigration bill, S. 744. The agriculture section of the immigration bill includes two main provisions: an adjustment of status for experienced but falsely-documented workers and a new future agriculture visa program.
Like any agreement, the results of this negotiation include items we like and others we would rather do without. However, our main objectives were met. The agreement addresses the need to retain our experienced employees — the people who are already here. Legal status for these skilled, hard-working and valuable immigrants is critical to continued American farm production and a secure domestic supply of fresh food. Additionally, the new worker program created by this agreement more closely resembles the current labor market, allowing employers and employees to choose contract or at-will employment.
During the course of dozens of meetings with members of the House and Senate, the WG Board was able to push and prod for immigration reform. Meetings included House and Senate authors of bipartisan legislation which provided an opportunity to better understand the structure of what Congress is contemplating, as well as the critical flash points as the bills progress through each chamber. Directors had the chance to meet with Executive branch officials to review legislation to understand the role the agencies involved might play. Directors also met with a number of members who are undecided about immigration reform. The WG directors were able to drive home the critical need for progress for agriculture as well as explain the importance of the agriculture deal that was struck. Finally, board members were able to engage with several members of Congress who are uneasy about immigration reform in an effort to educate and inform as well as better understand the position of those that might oppose a deal.
This year’s Washington DC meeting was jam packed with immigration reform and board members made the case early and often doing a great job representing the industry. In the coming days and weeks, we will need all producers to likewise push for reform as the debate shifts from the Senate and House Committees to the Senate floor (during June) and the House floor (during July).
Indeed, as I write this, the House of Representatives is scheduled to debate and vote on immigration reform before the beginning of August. We need all your help so please call, fax, email or write your member of the House to support immigration reform. If you operate in several counties or several states make sure to call ALL of the Representatives and Senators that represent the areas where you have offices and farms, not just the one for your home and main operation. The Western Growers website (www.wga.com) is always updated with the latest information and includes the tools for you to easily contact these Representatives. To reach the U.S. Capitol switchboard, call (202) 224-3121, then ask for your representative.
While in Washington, WG Board members also engaged on the Farm Bill indicating that the bill needs to be pushed forward. During the last several years, WGA has been working on the multi-year reauthorization of the Farm Bill. During 2012 those efforts came to fruition as both the full Senate and the House Agriculture Committee passed bills and those bills contained high value programs for the specialty crop industry. Unfortunately, while the Senate passed its version of the Farm Bill, the House never proceeded to a vote so a new bill was delayed. While much of the substance of the bill this year remains unchanged from what was offered last year, the political environment has changed. Like last year the Senate Agriculture Committee passed a bill and that bill was passed by the full Senate on June 10.
Unlike last year however, the House of Representatives will be tackling a bill on the floor. Indeed, after committee passage in May, the full House is scheduled to debate and vote on its Farm Bill version during the week of June 17th. At the time of this writing, many contentious issues remain to be solved by the House so passage is not guaranteed.
A group of WG Board members also had the opportunity to engage with Food and Drug Administration staff directly during the board meeting. As we analyze the food safety rule, we have come to the conclusion that the rule’s basic structure follows and borrows heavily upon existing industry guidance documents. Using successful food safety regimes that have had substantial industry input will allow this regulation to go forward on a solid base.
While this strong footing can’t be denied, we did explore a number of issues with FDA that trouble us. We need to be sure that the rule maintains flexibility and that it be as practical as possible to implement. One example of an issue of concern is that the FDA proposes that producers test water quality every week. This proposal will not only be costly, but more importantly, it is not clear at all how the testing frequency directly links to prevention. WGA is concerned that the seven-day testing regime is a “blunt instrument” that does not constitute useful preventive practice. We would like to see the rule expand the use of alternatives. The rule allows producers to petition the agency to create alternatives to the practice guidelines. We want to see that language as broad as possible. There are many areas where industry is rapidly innovating, improving preventive practices, implementing new technology and learning more about the nexus between key risk areas and pathogens in produce that might reach a consumer. Board members expressed these opinions and engaged with FDA leadership during the meeting.
In all, it was a great board meeting and an excellent opportunity for Congressional members to hear how their actions are impacting the men and women who work the land in an effort to feed this great nation.
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