By Christine Souza
With the federal government now returning to full operation, California farmers and ranchers say it is time for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to advance two key issues.
“Now that Congress and the administration have dealt with the temporary shutdown of federal agencies and reached a temporary solution to the debt ceiling, it’s time to deal with two issues of critical importance to agriculture: immigration reform and the farm bill,” California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger said, adding that it’s crucial that both be resolved by the end of the year.
Shortly following the government’s reopening, President Obama said he wanted to push forward with legislative priorities of a balanced budget, immigration reform and passage of a farm bill. Discussions on the farm bill have resumed, and so have legislative maneuvers on immigration.
House Democrats introduced a comprehensive immigration bill that largely mirrors one passed in June by the Senate, although with changes to border-security provisions. The bill would create a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented residents.
Farm Bureau has been calling for reform of the nation’s broken immigration system for years and, amid reports of chronic problems hiring qualified people for agricultural work, Wenger said it is important for the issue to be addressed.
“It is critical that Congress solve the immigration question once and for all,” he said. “Anything less than a comprehensive solution will result in a repeat of our current situation with undocumented workers in the U.S. Whatever passes the Congress this go-round will be what we live with for the next 30 to 40 years, so they need to get it right—and those of us in agriculture need to talk to our representatives to help them get it right.”
The partial government shutdown complicated efforts for farmers who use the existing agricultural guest worker program, known as H-2A.
Steve Scaroni, whose company harvests fresh fruit and vegetables throughout California and Arizona, said with lettuce harvest about to begin in the Yuma Valley, he and other farmers who hire H-2A employees for harvest would have been about 3,000 employees short, because the U.S. Department of Labor was closed and H-2A applications were not being processed. Scaroni said he feared his guest workers would be at least 30 days late, but farmers received help from California lawmakers.
“These H-2A applications are now being fast-tracked, and we now expect our workers to be in place in mid-November and only cause a delay of about a week,” Scaroni said.
He credited “very hard work” by Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and others for encouraging the Labor Department to speed the H-2A applications.
The other main issue pending before Congress, the 2013 Farm Bill, will soon go to a conference committee to reconcile differences between Senate and House versions of the bill. Negotiations have begun among the four leaders of the House and Senate agriculture committees, with the first meeting of the 41-member conference committee expected by the end of the month.
The sooner a farm bill is approved, the better, said Mark Bagby, spokesman for Calcot, a Bakersfield-based cotton marketing cooperative.
“The farm bill is critical to all U.S. cotton growers, as producers and marketers rely heavily upon the marketing loan program to help finance the crop during harvest and for orderly marketing,” Bagby said. “The lack of a farm bill is troubling; the loss of direct payments in the likely replacement farm bill will have an impact on cotton, rice, corn and wheat producers, though most have come to realize that’s probably inevitable. The switch into crop insurance of the proposed farm bills will be interesting.”
As government agencies reopened after the partial shutdown, the American Farm Bureau Federation reported that it will take some time for many agencies and programs to get back up to speed.
Kevin Shea, administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, asked for the public’s patience as the agency works to address customers’ needs.
“We have to focus on what’s most important for animal and plant health and animal welfare, and make sure we address those things first,” Shea said. “Another important priority is working with importers and exporters to process permit requests and health certificates for our customers whose livelihoods depend on this documentation.”
The U.S. Forest Service, which ordered timber harvesters on federal lands to stop logging on national forests during the shutdown, informed the operators they may now return to work. But California Forestry Association Vice President of Public Resources Steve Brink said it is likely that most operators who were unable to move onto other timber harvesting jobs will cease operations until next spring, due to the high cost of having to move equipment out and now back into the forest.
“There may be a few contract holders that will move their equipment back in and go back to work. However, many will simply wait until spring, rather than go to the work and cost to re-mobilize when winter could be just one storm away,” Brink said.
As a result of the shutdown, he said, “every purchaser will file a claim against the government.”
“It was a government-induced suspension that didn’t have anything to do with anything going wrong with the contract or the weather,” Brink said, adding he believes timber operators are likely to be reimbursed for some of their costs.
Credit to the California Farm Bureau Federation for this article.