Led by a national ad hoc conservative political coalition known as Bibles, Badges and Business, and supported by American Farm Bureau and its local affiliates, 70 growers from across the U.S. traveled to Washington, D.C., Oct. 28 for a two-day effort to motivate key legislators to move forward on a new and improved agricultural labor policy.
Florida Farm Bureau Federation participated in the trip and brought along two major citrus producers to help make its case that forward momentum on ag labor is critical to the state's economy.
Specific efforts to reform agricultural labor policy have stalled under the broader banner of immigration reform as political gridlock in Washington continues to prevent even meaningful discussion, much less action, noted FFBF's national affairs coordinator Janell Hendren, who led the Florida delegation.
"The message we wanted to get across is that we are losing time, we are losing momentum," Hendren said. "And we absolutely need to get this done right now, before it becomes too late."
The goal of this excursion was different from previous trips, Hendren said.
"Normally, we go to talk about and advocate for what we need when it comes to immigration reform," she said. "But this trip was specifically targeted to some of our best friends in the House, who have the ear of leadership, including Rep. Steve Southerland, who sits at the leadership table as the sophomore class president."
The FFBF group petitioned six Florida House members - five Republicans and freshman Democrat Patrick Murphy - to pressure their leadership to bring a bill that focuses on ag labor
reform to the House floor for a vote.
A fairly promising House bill - HR-1773 - currently exists, but needs improvement, Hendren said.
"It needs some work before we can get behind it," she said. "But it doesn't need that much work."
At issue are a cap on the number of guest ag workers that can be allowed into the U.S. and a so-called adverse wage rule under the current H-2A program that pegs labor at almost $10 an hour.
FFB and other agricultural organizations want a larger, flexible cap that can be administered by the U.S. Secretary of Labor and a reduction of the high labor cost.
The Washington trip helped generate some attention to the issue, Hendren said. But she is only cautiously optimistic about any real progress.
"Most of the House members expressed the opinion that something needs to be done on agricultural labor," she said. "But at the same time, they were unsure as to how to get everybody to the table and get something done. For example, I heard several representatives express frustration about the fact that people in Washington are just not working well together to get things done."
But, Hendren said, at least agricultural leaders and growers got a chance to make their case.
"And I think that if House leadership can find a politically tenable way to move forward, they will. I think they want to," Hendren said. "That's definitely what we heard from those who have spoken to their leadership already. And this issue should be a no-brainer. But, unfortunately, it has been caught up in and hijacked by politics."
Justin Sorrells, harvesting manager at Arcadia-based Sorrells Citrus, which harvests 5.5 million boxes of oranges a year and uses 400 guest workers at peak times, was one of the two Florida growers who accompanied Hendren to Washington.
"What we want right now is just to have a conversation about this issue," Sorrells said. "We need a real dialogue to start talking about it. If we can't get everybody to the table to address this issue, we're never going to see any laws passed. So we have to get interested parties to the table and start that conversation. We have to get something in the works, so people like myself and other farmers can look at, alter if we need to, agree with if we can. But we need to get a good conversation going to get the ball rolling. It isn't even rolling now. They haven't even picked the ball up. So that's the first thing we need to see happen."
Steve Johnson, of Wauchula-based Johnson Harvesting, which harvests 6.2 million boxes of oranges a year and employs 600-700 workers at peak times, was the other Florida grower who made the trip to Capitol Hill.
"I felt pretty good after our first couple of meetings," Johnson said. "But I didn't feel very confident by the time we left. That's because some of the congressmen told us this is going to be a hard row to hoe."
In effect, Johnson said, trip participants were told that politics currently trumps policy.
"After having them explain the politics to us," he said, "I wasn't as upbeat."
As a result, Johnson said, he feels growers have two options. One is to hope and push for legislative reform. The other is to revise and improve the current H-2A guest worker program.
"Although we do not currently participate in H-2A, we plan to enroll next year," Johnson said, "because the labor issue is important to the survival of our business. But that is plan B. Plan A is to get reform done in Washington and have a reliable source of affordable labor. But our plan B as growers and employers is to go after restructuring H-2A if we can't get immigration reform done. And I don't know if there is industry-wide interest yet in doing that. But I do know that there is a lot of interest in coming up with a plan B, because we don't have any way to know that plan A is going to work."