Top Ten Issues Facing Ag

The Top Ten Issues Facing Agriculture:

California Fresh Fruit Association’s Bedwell Lays Them Out

By Patrick Cavanaugh, California Ag Today

For the first time in nearly eight decades, the California Fresh Fruit Association met in San Diego to carry on all the traditions established over the previous 79 years by the organization originally known as the California Grape & Tree Fruit League.

“How does that feel?” said President Barry Bedwell as he addressed a big part of his membership. “For the most part, I think the feedback has been more than positive. As we explain the rationale behind the name change and why we have moved from a very dear moniker, if you will, for an association that has such a great history, I think it is altogether fitting and proper to recognize our position in the state of California,” said Bedwell.

The Association covers the state from Lake County in the North to the Coachella Valley in the South, and represents 13 commodities with a combined value of $2.5 billion.

“The new name transition has gone very well,” noted Bedwell. “And as we look at 2015, I think it is a ‘schizophrenic’ time for agriculture. On the one hand, as our chairman, David Jackson, pointed out, economically, things look very strong for most commodities.”

“However, here we are in a situation of increasing anxiety. If you look at the feedback every year on our top ten issues, you can see the concentration of issues that are not simply operational in scope. They may be historic in impact when talking about water availability and groundwater management, as we move forward,” said Bedwell. “The availability of water, along with the availability of labor, are simply game changers. They can change things overnight. And I think, inherently, farmers understand that and all of you in this room working together as a supply chain understand that.”

Bedwell then announced his traditional Top Ten Issues Affecting Ag and the association and discussed how they changed from the prior year:

#10  Workers’ Compensation costs.  We bought up our partnership with Zenith Insurance. It’s about how to run programs more efficiently to save you money, but we understand that when it comes to the issue of worker’s comp, it is the issue of the legislature changing the laws to benefit certain classes of participants that leads to higher costs that render our competitiveness more difficult.

#9 Invasive Pest Issues. Look no further than what’s happening with the citrus industry and their struggle agains HLB and the idea of the Citrus psyllid continually being found in new counties throughout the state. Pests for us on one hand are more associated with things like the European Grapevine Moth, where we have done a good job, made progress, and have a chance at eradication, but pests are always on our minds because we are only one quarantine away from not being able to ship our fruit, and we understand that.

#8 Water Quality. We hear so much about water availability, but creeping up into our mindset as well, is water quality because we know we have issues with salts and nitrates in the Valley. How does agriculture get involved with this? It continues to be an issue.

#7 Groundwater Management Legislation. We saw on our list—for the first—groundwater management legislation. This is potentially a game changer. We just had a meeting with some of you in Visalia with the California Water Foundation. They are trying to explain the timeframe for this new law, and quite frankly, the more you learn about it, the more you have to be concerned about any potential outcome other than the scope of agriculture in the state of California.

Because what they are saying in an almost commonsense contradiction is that this has nothing to do with your water rights. Those don’t change, but we may limit the amount of water you can use. That is a tough one to figure out at times, but that is potentially where we are headed in the fourth year of the drought. As you hear the vernacular in Sacramento, the mindset begins to change from one of, ‘Maybe we’ll get rain this year,’ to ‘Maybe we are in the fourth year of a ten-year drought.’ So all of the sudden, the mindset begins to change to more management of water. This is a major concern.

#6 Labor Costs. Knowing and trying to educate legislators about the fact that seventy to perhaps eighty percent of our variable costs as farmers is tied up with labor because we deal with the most labor-intense costs possible with our 13 commodities. I don’t look at any as being machine harvested or machine pruned. So, every time there’s a good-will gesture of, ‘Boy, we should move that minimum wage up,’ we try to explain to people we don’t pay minimum wage. Wages are higher; but incrementally, all of our sectors move up, whether you are a tractor driver or an irrigator, and that has a major impact on our ability to compete on a world-wide basis. And you start to see the labor influence spilling into Baja, California.

As you read recently, workers there are demonstrating because they are making about $8/day, and we are probably more about $12/hour for seasonal labor. But we still have to compete with those instances, so labor is always going to be a concern. We always talk about labor laws and regulations.

#5 Agriculture Labor Relations Act. A year ago at this time, we talked about a case involving one of our members, Gerawan, and the United Farm Workers (UFW), who won an election back in 1990, disappeared for 22 years, then showed up again last summer. The UFW said, “We are the certified representatives for the employees, we’re now here, we want our contract.” The catch was that the employees said: “We don’t know anything about you; we don’t know why we should pay you three percent of our wages for dues.”

That situation resulted in a hearing beginning on September 29th. At that time, the hearing was in front of an administrative law judge in Fresno, and was scheduled to go for ten weeks. Those ten weeks finished up about two weeks ago—after 23 weeks had past. That’s incredible, to think, we have heard it cost as high as 7 million dollars to have that administrative hearing, all paid by California taxpayers.

This is not really how the law was intended to benefit the workers. So, as we move forward, we are always going to see efforts by organized labor to change the law to change the scale for their benefit. We saw it last year with SB 25, which really tried to create a perpetual mandatory mediation situation.

We have to continually push back on these bills. The most effective way to do that is to communicate the voices of those impacted, and in this case it is the employees. And so we have tried very hard to create a relationship with the members on the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, and a couple of weeks ago when we were in Sacramento, we had dinner with two of the three board members. And I know the chairman spent most of the time speaking with Harold McClarty, president of HMC Farms, so I know we are in good shape. It is really about relationships and that is what we continue to work on.

#4 Healthcare Mandates. What is happening with the Affordable Care Act, and how is impacting you?

We saw some very practical instances last year where many of our members who use farm-labor contractors were approached. And the labor contractors said, “Well, because of the Affordable Care Act, I’m going to have to raise my rates from $0.70 to $1.10/hour. But under closer examination, we said: “Well—hold it. What percent of your workforce really has to be covered under the Act?” In many cases we found that it certainly wasn’t 100 percent; it was sometimes closer to 10 percent. So we are trying to help administer the understanding of that Act for the best benefit of our members.

#3 The Continuing Need for Immigration Reform. It hasn’t gone away. I am so pleased to have Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association, here with us today, along with his Board chairman Ron Carkoski, because we work very closely on these national issues with Tom and Ron. And our voice is still there. Our level of frustration has grown because as we entered this legislative session in Congress, guess what? What did we hear most about? E-Verify; the Legal Workforce Act; and the concern that we have documented workers. We don’t disagree with that. We think that’s a great idea, but you don’t put the cart in front of the horse; you don’t do E-Verify before you create a system for a legal workforce. That’s a very simple message we are trying to get to the leaders in Congress, and Tom and Ron do an absolutely fantastic job in helping to get that message across.

#2 Food Safety. Last July, I received a phone call from one of our members on a Saturday. It was hard to gauge the impact at the time, because that member said, “I want to let you know that we had four peaches show up in Australia, and there was an indication of Listeria.” Now in Australia, there is technically a tolerance for Listeria, and these were such low levels of Listeria, that that shipment was released.

It went on its way with no issues. But under further examination, Listeria was discovered in the plant. As the U.S. and FDA have no tolerance for Listeria and as U.S. law requires, there was a recall. This was not a small recall. It was a period from June 1st to, I think, July 17th. That is a huge amount of product.

During that time, there were no confirmed illnesses. That doesn’t mean there weren’t claims, because once you start a recall and information goes out to the public, there will be plenty of claims. But from an association point-of-view, how do we react and plan for the future with regard to food safety? Because all of the sudden, the perception of tree fruit in this instance, and peaches and nectarines, in particular, being a low-risk commodity, has changed.

Is it really a low-risk commodity? Absolutely, it is a low-risk commodity. But are we immune? Absolutely not. We found out that we have food safety issues, like so many other fresh produce commodities. We had to communicate the right way not only to the segment of our members who were involved. Many of them were, quite frankly, in a state of denial, saying, “This shouldn’t be happening.” Well it happened.

But I want to applaud the industry, and especially our leadership Association, who said, “We have to do the right thing. We have to communicate our concern. We have to be positive about this.” They not only moved forward with our membership aspect, but  they also created the partnership with the Center for Produce Safety in Davis to develop the best possible practices as we move ahead.

Food safety was further complicated late in the year because of the apple recall. Now those were candied apples, they had caramel on them. But as you can see, the fact is the Listeria found was attributable to the apples, not the coating. Again, we had an industry that thought, quite rightfully, they were low-risk. And once again, we are learning we are not immune. As we move ahead, food safety is going to be a very important component of our work as an Association.

We have created a food safety sub-committee, chaired by George Nicolate.

#1 Can anybody guess? Water. From our perspective, there are three general areas of water we have to focus on. Number one, the Water Bond, and what happened last summer. It is a very good success story, in that we were able, with the help of individuals in the legislature, to maximize the amount of dollars in that bond for above-ground storage. But in Sacramento today, there are challenges and perceptions regarding dams. People have mindsets that unfortunately go to the extreme and in many case, dams is one of those.

I can guarantee that through the efforts of people who were involved in our Association and through the Agricultural President’s Council, we were able to move up what was first a $2 billion proposal, then $2.5, then $2.7, with a commitment for a subsequent legislation on Cross-Valley conveyance in Kern County.

This was a major accomplishment, but as accomplishments go, unless you follow-through, you’re never going to realize the results. And I think George Soares, attorney with Kahn, Soares, and Conway in Sacramento, said it best when he said, “As these things happen, amnesia sets in with people very quickly. And all the sudden the people with whom you were discussing above-ground storage with will start to say, ‘Well, you know the bond says it doesn’t have to be above-ground storage; maybe we could do local projects, regional projects, or maybe we can do underground banking.’”

Our message has been very clear, “No, the deal that was made was on two above-ground storage units, and the fact is that these will be decided by water commissioners. There are public benefit formulas, and those projects should be at the top. And until they are disqualified, they should be the first two that are qualified.”

As we were up in Sacramento a couple weeks ago, I think there was frustration among our participants as we heard the governor’s point person on water start to demonstrate that amnesia right in front of us. And that was a concern.

Number one, we have to push the true intent of the water bond to the finish line.

Number two, we have to have input into the groundwater management regulations a process that will require regulations sustainable management agencies for local water agencies. This is a very complicated issue. It’s very difficult to talk about what sustainability is. When they set baselines to talk about the ability to use groundwater, it is vital that we have the opportunity to give our input to stress the importance of sustainability and to emphasize that human health also involves vibrant farms and the employment of individuals. We have to have those concepts melded together.

Lastly we have the long-term issues of water conveyance in the state. If we are going to remain the agricultural giant that we are with the, I believe, all time record in 2014, we are going to have to find a more efficient way to move water, whether is that is the governor’s BDC plan, which doesn’t appear to be gaining traction, or not. But longer-term, members have said, “We are not against moving excess water South. We have to make sure the health of the Delta is maintained. We have to respect environmental laws, but we have to respect the impact of agriculture on our quality of life. So, water is at the forefront.

So, how’s the association doing? Very well. Financially we are on strong terms, I feel very good about our name change and our voluntary leadership moving ahead. I think we can take confidence in looking ahead at the future for this Association.

In summary, I just want to reiterate my thanks for being able to work for production agriculture. It is frustrating at times. It’s always difficult. Working with people who sometimes don’t understand, … it reminds me of the saying that I read in the paper yesterday and need to share with you. It is by Mark Twain, who said, “You never want to get into an argument with a stupid person, they will simply drag you down to their level, and then beat you with experience.”

Many times, in the world of public policy, that’s what we’re are dealing with at times. But we tend to look at it as an opportunity to educate as well as advocate. Those are two separate things, you have to be good at both of them, and I think our leadership does a very good job with them.

Bedwell gave special thanks to this year’s Chairman David Jackson and his wife Gale. He also reached out to thank his staff for the great job they are doing back at the office and in the field.

For more information, go to: California Fresh Fruit Association.

Farm employment: Drought impact adds uncertainty to hiring outlook

Source: Ag Alert

Even though reduced crop production caused by water shortages may reduce on-farm employment in California, farmers and farm labor contractors say they expect continued trouble in filling agricultural jobs this spring and summer.

“The drought is still ongoing, which means that there will be a lot of land left uncultivated,” said Bryan Little, California Farm Bureau Federation director of employment policy and chief operating officer of the Farm Employers Labor Service. “This will probably soften the blow of the shortage of labor some, but everything I am hearing is that the labor market is still pretty tight.”

Little said most of the farmers with whom he speaks “are finding that labor is still pretty scarce.” He said farmers are expressing increasing interest in the federal H-2A guestworker program—despite its signficant drawbacks—while “relying more and more” on farm labor contractors.

San Luis Obispo County farmer Carlos Castañeda, who is also a farm labor contractor, said the growing season kicked off in his region earlier than usual. So far, he said, he has been able to hire the people he needs but, he added, there isn’t an abundance of workers.

“My growers are cutting plantings back tremendously,” Castañeda said. “Unfortunately, the shortage of water is helping the shortage of labor—but as soon as the water issues are solved, the labor one is going to go into warp speed.”

About a month from now, Castañeda said, he expects several commodities will be ready for harvest at the same time, which will increase the need for on-farm employees and reduce the number of workers available.

Michael Frantz, co-owner of Frantz Wholesale Nursery in Hickman, said he remains concerned about finding enough people to do the highly technical work at his horticultural company, which specializes in landscape trees, shrubs and drought-tolerant plants.

“We have full-time employment that requires learning the skills of a trade that are taught on-farm. There are a lot of technical skills, whether it is grafting or budding and training of trees to be grown to retail-grade specifications, that take years to master,” Frantz said. “For a nursery to grow consistent quality product, we need a workforce that looks at our nursery and our company as a career choice. Our best employees have been here 10 to 30 years.”

Frantz said he has had problems hiring skilled workers for the past several years. In 2013, his nursery supplemented its own hiring with the use of farm labor contractors. Last year, he said, was “the first year that we were unable to fill all of the positions.”

Frantz said his business printed fliers describing the company, its pay rates, benefits and other amenities.

“For the first time, we felt we had to sell ourselves to the community as opposed to expecting people to show up looking for work,” Frantz said. “We set up card tables at the employment office and had human resources people there handing out fliers. That outreach had minimal results.”

As a result, he said he is very concerned about locating reliable workers for this season, adding that many other nurseries share the same concern.

“This year, we are running ads on Spanish radio. We have ramped up our hiring efforts and already, it is early, but it seems that 2015 is going to be more difficult than last year,” Frantz said. “The lack of a dependable ag workforce is preventing us from adding additional jobs and growing our family businesses like we would like to be able to do.”

Earl Hall, owner of Hall Management Corp., a farm labor contractor headquartered in Fresno, said he is aware that agriculture faces a shortage of available employees, but says he has avoided shortages by being “real careful” not to expand unless conditions warrant.

“You have to be in this industry for a long time like I’ve been so that you know the trends and what is happening,” said Hall, whose company reaches 50 years in business this year.

Castañeda said more growers are opting to use the federal H-2A program to hire immigrant employees, which he called an “expensive and absolutely bureaucratic nightmare, but it is the only tool available.”

Little said use of the H-2A program among California farmers and ranchers remains relatively slight because of a variety of problems with the program, including its lack of the flexibility agricultural employers need to hire people on a timely basis.

Another factor affecting the availability of potential on-farm employees is reduced migration by Mexicans to the U.S., according to research conducted by Edward Taylor, a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California, Davis, and doctoral student Diane Elise Charlton. Their research found fewer potential farm employees migrating to California due to growth in Mexico’s non-farm economy, falling birth rates and an increase in rural education.

Because of this trend, Little said, Farm Bureau and other groups have advocated for a permanent solution to agricultural labor shortages through immigration reform.

Without legislation to address the country’s current labor situation, bills such as the Legal Workforce Act would harm farms and ranches, Little said. The bill, which would require agricultural employers to use the E-Verify system to prove employment eligibility for agricultural workers, was approved last week by the House Judiciary Committee.

“We are absolutely, adamantly opposed to moving forward with mandatory E-Verify until we know we are going to get a workable guestworker program,” Little said.

California agriculture relies on about 400,000 employees during peak season. Some experts estimate that 70 percent or more of hired farm employees responsible for U.S. fruit, vegetable, dairy, livestock, nursery and other production are not authorized to work in the United States, despite presenting apparently legitimate work documents, Little added.

Western United Dairymen Calls on Congress to Address Farm Labor Crisis

Call to Address Farm Labor Crisis, along with E-Verify Legislation

Together with the Agriculture Workforce Coalition (AWC), Western United Dairymen (WUD) called on Congress TODAY to enact legislation that would address the farm labor crisis faced by American agriculture before implementing a mandatory E-Verify system.

The call came via the testimony of Chuck Conner, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives (NCFC), a member of the AWC, during a hearing of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security. Subcommittee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) called the hearing to examine The Legal Workforce Act (H.R. 1772), legislation introduced during the previous Congress.  The measure would mandate the use of the E-Verify system by employers to confirm the legal status of prospective employees.

“Mandatory E-Verify without addressing agriculture’s broader labor crisis would be devastating. As an industry, we recognize interior enforcement is needed; it just cannot be decoupled from addressing agriculture’s workforce concerns,” Conner testified. “Let me be very clear: the agricultural industry would be forced to oppose any E-Verify legislation that does not also address the agricultural workforce crisis.”

Conner noted that an estimated 70 percent of hired farm workers lack proper authorization to work in the United States, despite providing authentic-looking documents to employers. In addition, the only guest worker program available to agriculture, H-2A, is so cumbersome and divorced from the market-based needs of agriculture, that it provides just 7 percent of the workers needed by farmers and ranchers.

The vast majority of America’s farmers fully comply with the law. But the system created by Congress in 1986 is vulnerable to the use of false documents. “Employers, including farmers, are not experts in spotting false documents,” Conner said. “So long as a solution is in place to ensure access to a legal and stable workforce, including our current, experienced workersboth year-round and seasonalfarmers would welcome a verification system that is simple, efficient and certain.”

WUD is a voluntary membership organization representing more than 60% of the milk produced in California. Membership benefits include resources in labor law, environmental regulations and pricing issues. Members decide the direction of state and federal legislative efforts affecting the dairy industry.

The Agriculture Workforce Coalition (AWC) unites over 70 organizations representing the diverse needs of agricultural employers across the country. AWC serves as the unified voice of agriculture in the effort to ensure that Americas farmers, ranchers and growers have access to a stable and secure workforce. Western United Dairymen is a key member of the AWC steering committee.