Migrant workers harvest strawberries at a farm near Oxnard, Calif.(Photo: Joe Klamar, AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — An Agriculture subcommittee hearing on specialty crops veered into a discussion of farm labor and immigration policy Thursday with one multi-state farm produce company witness saying an adequate, legal labor force is the industry’s “most pressing issue.”
About 150,000 seasonal guest workers a year receive Department of Labor H-2A visas, or about 10% of what is required, said James Field, director of business development at Illinois-based Frey Farms, which produces fresh fruits and vegetables in seven states.
“The reality is this: The vast majority of the nation’s foreign-born farm workers do not have proper work authorization and the emphasis on enforcement, without an accompanying, effective, legal ag guest-worker program, puts our industry in jeopardy,” he said.
Chairman Rodney Davis, R-Ill., noted that immigration policy is not under the jurisdiction of the subcommittee on biotechnology, horticulture and research, which is considering a major reauthorization of the farm bill. Nonetheless, both California Democrats on the subcommittee, Jim Costa and Jimmy Panetta, raised it as a necessary concern. Costa noted that 70% of the agricultural work force in California is undocumented.
Witness Sean Gilbert, general manager of Gilbert Farms in Washington state, which produces apples, pears and cherries, also raised the issue.
“While not traditionally a topic addressed by the farm bill, I cannot address the impact of federal policies on specialty crop growers without mentioning the need for a stable, legal workforce,” he said. “We need a guest worker program that is affordable, reliable and reasonable, and that provides a pathway to legal status for the current workforce so that this expertise is not lost.”
The current controversy over the latest immigration enforcement executive order from the Trump White House, and ongoing enforcement raids, were not directly referenced at the hearing but were clearly the subtext of the discussion.
Costa said farm workers are under “major stress,” and Panetta, hailing from what he called “the salad bowl” along California’s Central Coast, said that, even during the five-year drought, the No. 1 issue for his farmer constituents was the labor force.
“I believe more people need to realize that specialty crops and immigration and labor go hand in hand,” he said.
Panetta said the reliance on manual labor “stunted us when it came to mechanization.” He said when he sees mechanical equipment in Salinas Valley fields and asks where it was made, he often learns it’s from Spain or Portugal, countries that have addressed their farm-labor shortages.
Field agreed that a good research topic for agriculture would be how to be less reliant on manual labor, and said tying Salinas Valley farmers to Silicon Valley technology expertise could create a pioneering “ag-tech” field. He also urged the committee to consider having the H-2A visa program administered by USDA rather than DOL.
The hearing also featured witnesses calling for more research on pests and diseases, especially the citrus greening disease decimating Florida citrus. Witnesses also advocated for expanding marketing programs, especially the Market Access Program expanding sales overseas. Costa pointed out that specialty crops are not unusual or "exotic," but "part of everyday's good nutrition."