Craig Regelbrugge Says 2016 Will Be A Year Of Waiting For The Horticulture Industry

Craig Regelbrugge
Craig Regelbrugge

The New Year is upon us, and it is one of those “years divisible by four,” which means we’ve got a presidential election to look forward to. Also, the entire House of Representatives and about one-third of the U.S. Senate are up for reelection. We will take a look at some of the most critical issues for horticulture in a moment. First, a few thoughts about the election.

Many wish it were already over, but in politics, the 10 months or so from now to the November elections are an eternity. In volatile times like these, so much can change quickly and anything can happen. The Republican field of presidential contenders has stayed crowded long beyond anyone’s expectations, and the Republican establishment is beginning to grapple with the possibility that Donald Trump could actually be the nominee.

Trump’s rise in the polls — and Ben Carson’s too — reflect the fact that record numbers of Americans are distrustful of government and politicians. Trump’s carefree attitude with respect to facts has not hurt him either, because distrust of the media is also sky-high, and details aside, the underlying points he makes resonate with many Americans. Still, this far out, many voters are not paying too much attention to the candidates. Time will tell whether or not the electorate shifts toward establishment of candidates with records of political accomplishment.

Congressional races will be interesting to watch. It is way too early to predict where things will head in the House of Representatives. In the Senate, of the 34 seats up for reelection, Republicans currently hold 24, which means they are defending a lot more territory. Most analysts think that Democrats will pick up a couple seats; a change in party control is possible, as is a 50/50 split. Florida, Nevada, and New Hampshire will be among the most interesting battlegrounds to watch.

Years divisible by four tend not to be productive with respect to legislation. Both parties did find a little fertile ground for cooperation on a medium-term budget resolution and a long-term transportation funding measure, as a way to get some of these critical business items off the 2016 agenda. The House may try to move a number of bills articulating a conservative vision under the leadership of new Speaker Paul Ryan, but just in case the Senate goes along on any of them, there is a fresh, ink-filled veto pen waiting at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Progress On Health Care Doubtful

Let’s move on to the issues, starting with Obamacare. At least until there is a new president, major changes on the health care front are unlikely. Even modest refinements are a long shot.

AmericanHort continues to work to support the STARS Act, which would streamline treatment of seasonal workers under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). It has bipartisan support and is an eminently sensible — if modest — piece of legislation.

Its passage would be symbolic to the extent that it signals a willingness to repair aspects of the ACA, but action is far from certain. This is because Republicans would rather deep-six the ACA than tweak it, and Democrats are afraid to open it up. Meanwhile, House Speaker Paul Ryan seems intent on unveiling a plan for what kind of alternative approach to the ACA Republicans would want to see.

Long-Term Transportation Funding Endorsed

At the end of 2015, Congress did actually manage to approve a long-term transportation funding bill. Certainty is better for the economy than uncertainty!

In the debate, AmericanHort successfully beat back a hostile amendment that would have prohibited federal highway funds from being used for vegetative enhancements, also known as landscaping.

This ludicrous idea was voted down, but it was supported by literally two-thirds of House Republicans. This stands as a fresh reminder that our industry has a lot of work ahead educating policymakers on why plants and landscaping are essential components of infrastructure for the ecosystem services and human health benefits they provide.

Immigration Reform Stalled For Now

The odds of Congress making major progress in 2016 on immigration reform are only slightly better than the odds of spotting a flying pink unicorn over your house. Even pro-reform House Republicans (yes, there still are some) do not see a viable path forward before a new president is sworn in.

For AmericanHort and our members, this means several things. One, we’ve got to continue to work to defend the limited but important programs that we now have (notably, H-2A and H-2B). Two, employers need to consider every available tool in the toolkit: mechanization and automation advances, returning veterans, resettled refugees, etc. Three, we must remain vigilant to the threat of enforcement-only initiatives that would further destabilize the labor force at a time of worsening labor shortages.

One interesting dynamic will be the Supreme Court. If it takes up the challenge to President Obama’s executive actions on a faster track, a ruling is possible in June, smack in the middle of the presidential election contest.

Meanwhile, demographic shifts further underscore why America needs a sensible modernization of her immigration system. According to the United Nations, 2016 will mark the first year since 1950 that the combined working-age population in the world’s advanced economies will decline. And by 2050, it will have declined by 5%. This may sound like a small number, but it’s got huge global implications.

In considering the health of a nation’s economy, demographers often consider the ratio of working-age population to dependents (those either too young to work, or too old). In the U.S. today, there are 5.1 dependents for every 10 working-age people. By 2050, there will be 6.6 dependents for every 10 working-age people, putting greater stress on our social safety-net programs and the workers propping them up. But it could be worse. In China, by contrast, today there are 3.7 dependents for every 10 people of working age, a healthy ratio. But by 2050, the dependents will rise to 7. China’s recent relaxation of its one child policy may help, but only around the margins.

Another interesting factoid is this: According to the Pew Research Center, between 2009 and 2014, significantly more Hispanics and their families left the U.S than came here. This is an inconvenient truth in our political contests, where candidates vie for who will build the highest wall. Frankly, at this point, a wall might trap more people here than it will keep out.

A reasonably open immigration policy is, of course, one of the best buffers against the fiscal hardship created by looming demographic changes. The U.S. has been well positioned in this respect historically. Now — or soon — would be as good a time as any for the U.S. to smartly modernize our system. Waiting won’t work so well.

Regulations Bring Modifications To Federal Overtime Laws

Regardless of one’s own political views, it is difficult to deny that this administration’s regulatory juggernaut is out of control. This is especially true in areas relating to labor law and the environment. On the former, we’ve seen a series of hostile policy decisions by the National Labor Relations Board.

During 2016, we expect the Labor Department’s revisions to federal overtime laws to take effect. The biggest single change will be a dramatic increase in the minimum salary threshold for employees under the so-called “white collar exemption” from overtime. Those new rules are expected sometime between July and November. Note that the agricultural exemption from overtime is not affected by this change, but many companies in our industry will be impacted.

Also, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) revised Worker Protection Standards will take effect. Expect plenty of confusion and consternation among both agricultural employers and state agencies who share in the responsibility for implementing these rules. On the environment front, the joint EPA/Army Corps “Waters of the U.S.” rule has been one of the most closely watched initiatives. Its fate is now in the hands of the courts.

Pollinator Issue Moves Beyond Neonicotinoids

Another issue worth noting, pollinator health, offers both challenges and opportunities. On the challenges side, we may lose important pest control tools from our toolkit. While most of the attention has been on the neonicotinoid insecticides, EPA is seeking additional data on pollinator impacts for 76 active ingredients. The list includes mostly insecticides, but also fungicides and herbicides.

Many growers report that they have greatly reduced the use of neonicotinoids (neonics). As a practical matter, there are many drivers encouraging growers to employ biologicals/biopesticides and other reduced-risk strategies. Neonics, incidentally, became popular for exactly these reasons: they generally have lower risk profiles from an environmental and worker protection perspective than many alternatives.

However, the issue is way bigger than neonicotinoids. So, if you are one of the growers saying “I’ve reduced use of neonics” and as a result you are using more synthetic pyrethroids, you should know that they too are under review, for both pollinator and aquatic impacts.

Secondly, the best science to date has not found the neonics guilty, despite what the activists are saying. Pesticides — and especially pesticide misuse — is certainly a factor threatening pollinator health, but one of several, and not the largest. The key really is tools in the toolkit. We need options for dealing with international invasive pest threats, and managing against the development of pesticide resistance.

Through the Grow Wise, Bee Smart initiative, AmericanHort, the Horticultural Research Institute, and other collaborators have funded critical research looking into residues of systemic insecticides in plant pollen and nectar under real-world conditions; and, to better understand which plants that we grow are pollinator-attractive and nutritious, and which ones do not attract pollinators. This information will allow us to make smarter pest management decisions in the greenhouse, nursery, or landscape.

The emergence of bee and pollinator health as a major conservation issue of our day also means opportunity for horticulture. This is because virtually every interest concerned about pollinator health agrees that improved pollinator habitat and forage opportunities are a critical part of the solution.

As one of eight conservation and trade groups that launched the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge, AmericanHort encourages every garden retail and landscape business to help consumers plant something for pollinators. Annuals, perennials, trees, and shrubs that offer nutritious support for bees and pollinators are part of the solution, and one that we can all embrace.

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