By Chardae Heim
Jimmy Panetta, who proudly serves California’s 20th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives, has continually demonstrated a steadfast commitment to ensuring the sustainability and success of the nation’s food supply. Since being sworn into office in 2017, Rep. Panetta has fought for everything from immigration reform and accessible healthcare to the protection of the agriculture industry and its farmers and farmworkers.
Most recently, he has served as a true congressional champion for Western Growers members impacted by coronavirus. When COVID-19 hit in the United States and the foodservice sector virtually collapsed, many fresh produce farmers were forced to abandon their fields to cut their losses. This cost farming operations millions of dollars, adding to the existing sting of the State Department’s decision to suspend routine nonimmigrant visa processing in Mexico.
Panetta led the charge in urging for the immediate amendment of the suspension on visa processing for H-2A workers; advocating for a recovery and relief plan for the produce industry; and ensuring adequate financial support for producers who face considerable hardship due to the outbreak.
Western Growers had the opportunity to speak with Rep. Panetta about his efforts in Congress and his thoughts about the future of agriculture.
Why was it important to you to advocate for providing vital financial assistance to producers of agricultural commodities who have suffered losses due to COVID-19?
We need to make sure that the people who provide the food on our tables are protected, which includes our producers, our farmers, and our farmworkers. To harvest our specialty crops, it takes human beings and unfortunately, the administration basically blocked all the processing of the H-2As in Mexico.
Based on the bipartisan letter that I spearheaded, the administration reversed its decision and allowed those H-2A visas to be processed. What this highlights is not just how valuable our farmworkers are, but how vulnerable they are to COVID-19. That's why I led the bipartisan effort asking for PPE, asking for education, and asking for testing. I did the same thing when we had the fires and the smoke.
On the Central Coast, our specialty crops are not used to getting subsidies like they do in other parts of this country. We’re not used to getting these handouts, but I can tell you, we want our fair share. Fortunately, with the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, the CFAP, I believe we got that in the $19 billion that was allocated.
What the USDA needs is obviously data to justify these types of payments and they needed more time. That’s why, once again, I led a letter to extend the deadline for acquiring CFAP applications because we needed more data. Our farmers needed to put forward more data and after we led that letter, we got that extension.
The last thing was the limitations…how much seed that an individual farmer can acquire. I led a letter to the USDA that basically asked to take the caps from the seed. They didn't quite take the caps off it but they increased it. But there are more things that we need to do. And this has us thinking outside the box when it comes to these types of direct disbursements to our specialty crops growers, who are typically diversified among many crops. We are trying to get USDA to take a whole farm option rather than a specific crop option when it comes to CFAP.
What do you foresee as the biggest opportunity for specialty crop producers?
When you talk to people who work in specialty crops, they will tell you that the number one issue is ag labor because our types of crops are the ones that you cannot run a machine through the field as they do in the Midwest with field crops. Instead, it takes human discernment to actually figure out what is ripe, what is safe, and what is aesthetically pleasing for the consumer. That type of discernment is difficult to replace with mechanization at this point.
I do believe that the biggest option for next year, the lowest hanging fruit, if I may, is immigration reform. I believe that we’ve provided an excellent foundation upon which we can have meaningful immigration reform when it comes to ag labor. That’s the Farm Workforce Modernization Act that we passed out of the House of Representatives on a bipartisan basis, a piece of legislation that in my limited time in Congress was formulated in a way that I haven't seen done before. You had Democrats and Republicans, farmers and farm workers at the table grinding away to come up with not the perfect bill, but a compromise bill and we got that. It’s a good bill because of it. You don’t normally see that in Washington, D.C., but this is the way legislation should be created.
We also have to ensure that the initiatives that we put forward in the farm bill for ag research are funded appropriately.
When it comes to ag labor, it is a two-prong approach of having immigration reform, and funding ag technology at the same time…trying to find that mechanization that actually gets anywhere near the human capabilities that we have. We’re a long way away, but we're slowly getting there, not to replace workers, but to replace the lack of workers. Our ag workforce is shrinking and it’s aging.
You have been such a staunch supporter for immigration reform. Where do you see this falling as a priority for the current and next administration?
The reason people sat at the table for eight months grinding out the Farm Workforce Modernization Act is because it was the right thing to do. I believe that when you actually have conversations about it and get through the politics and the anti-immigrant rhetoric that unfortunately we saw all too often these past three and a half years, people realize it’s the right thing to do. A Biden-Harris administration clearly will not be based on anti-immigrant rhetoric. Therefore, I believe that we'll have an excellent opportunity to put forward the Farm Workforce Modernization Act because we have laid such a solid foundation with such a bipartisan bill. I hope that if we have a Trump administration, they look at the policy and the people, not the politics.
I know you visited the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology in 2018. What did you think about the Center?
I not only visited the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology, I brought my ag research co-chair, Rodney Davis, there to have a town hall with our producers and our farmers and farmworkers. I wanted him to see the type of collaboration that can go on with having that type of Center right in the middle of an ag town. I also brought the current chair of the House Ag Committee, Collin Peterson. As a representative of the salad bowl of the world, I need to make sure that people understand how important our ag industry is.
Getting in and encouraging and motivating companies to develop machines and robots that will actually replicate the human discernment when it comes to harvesting our specialty crops is very, very difficult. When I had Secretary Perdue here in the district last year, I took him out to a strawberry field and we saw some of the technology that they're working on right now. One machine takes more pictures of a strawberry plant in one afternoon than has been taken previously in the entire history of the strawberry. It’s that outside the box thinking that you’d need in order to replace the humans’ ability to pick a fresh, ripe and safe strawberry.
What’s your fondest memory of agriculture having grown up in, and now representing, Monterey County?
I grew up here on the Central Coast, Carmel Valley, to be exact, on my grandfather's farm, who was an Italian immigrant. I grew up on a walnut farm. I have an appreciation of the hard work that it takes to produce products from our earth. I’ll be the first to admit I'm not a farmer, but I have an appreciation for it. I once took an ag-focused class, which is where I really was able to appreciate the skill that is necessary to be in agriculture. It’s the ability to constantly pivot in order to survive. People who work in agriculture are constantly dealing with the hurdles put up by Mother Nature. They’re constantly dealing with the mandates and the restrictions and the new laws that are put in place. They’re constantly dealing with changing markets that are always up in the air. It’s a constant risk-taking attitude that I believe leads to their success. It’s my job to make people appreciate that. The least that I can do as a representative of an agricultural area is to make sure that those risks are worth it.
What has been your primary motivation in continuing your fight for your constituency?
What keeps me motivated is knowing that I’m in Congress not to fight for a cause, but to fight for my constituents. I’m here to represent and to fight for the values and the people of the Central Coast. My goal and my fight is to ensure that the people of the Central Coast have confidence, knowing that the federal government works for them. I do that in my fights in Washington, D.C., be it on the Agriculture Committee, be it on the Ways and Means Committee, be it on the Budget Committee, in order to put forward the policies that benefit the people here on the Central Coast.
I also do it by providing essential casework to my constituents, being that bridge to Washington, D.C. and back, to make sure that our government bureaucracy actually works for the people here on the Central Coast. What people remember is how their congressmen helped them with a personal issue, an immigration issue, a Social Security issue, an IRS issue, a veterans issue, making sure that the government works for them on a personal issue. To me, that is how you affect their lives and that’s what motivates me. I’m helping them have the confidence that government can actually work for them.
You have been recognized as a politician seeking to restore bipartisanship. Why is being able to work on both sides of the aisle important to you?
Congress, like both most things, is really about relationships and it really is about the trust that you build from those relationships. I have experienced that firsthand, especially with my work on the Ag Committee, where we work not to find our differences, but to find our similarities and then work together on that, as we did in the 2018 Farm Bill. We had our differences when it came to the nutrition title of the 2018 Farm Bill, and I fought like heck to make sure that there were no changes to that nutrition title. I know that when it comes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, my district benefits from that and the last thing I wanted to do was to take that from them. At the same time, we also worked together to ensure that there was the appropriate funding and legislation in that farm bill to promote and to protect our specialty crops on the Central Coast. I was able to work with Republicans who were the ones in charge of formulating that farm bill. So much so, that Republican members came up to me and wanted to know what my interests were, how they could help me get my Central Coast interest into the 2018 Farm Bill. To me that’s why relationships are so important. It takes work to be bipartisan. I will never sacrifice the values or the desires of the people of the Central Coast for bipartisanship. But I will ensure that bipartisanship works for the people of the Central Coast. That’s why I’m bipartisan. And I think it works.
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