A new year is upon us, and so it’s time to peek at what the coming months may bring from an advocacy perspective. The task gets tougher as our politics seem to get more dysfunctional and defy prediction. Many factors contribute to this dysfunction — a Congressional redistricting process that has left only a few Congressional seats truly competitive for either party; a hyperactive 24-hour news cycle coupled with the reality that many Americans get their news from a source that tells it like they want to hear it; and an erosion of trust and confidence in anchor institutions including government.
After year one, is the Trump administration winning or losing? From purely a business perspective, it’s a mixed bag. On one hand, there have been areas of (mostly regulatory) relief, and some President Obama-era labor, environmental, and other initiatives have been or are being rolled back. The stock market keeps charging along, unemployment is low, and consumer confidence is high. On the other hand, investors and businesses tend to prefer certainty. Yet certainty seems in short supply. Where may we be headed?
Big Legislation in 2018?
Many Washington observers believe that Republicans squandered their opportunities during the first half (or more) of 2017. So as the year wound down, Senate and House Republican leaders doubled down to get major tax relief and reform bills across the finish line by Christmas. As of our press deadline, it was too early to call the outcome, but we looked to be in a good place on preserving cash accounting, and soon we’ll know whether the Senate and House can move bills and resolve their differences.
2018 is a mid-term election year, with the whole House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate up for grabs. Election dynamics are going to make it tough to move major bills, yet what might be possible?
Cows, Sows, Plows … and Horticulture
The next Farm Bill is scheduled to be written in 2018. With rural America a central focus for politicians of both parties, many will want to get a bill done, and farm bills offer significant opportunity for bipartisan cooperation.
For horticulture, the Farm Bill is now a major vehicle for funding research and innovation, and for addressing plant pests and diseases that threaten business performance and growth. With Farm Bill support, AmericanHort is leading efforts to modernize greenhouse and nursery plant certification and safe trade. Our top priority will be to preserve and strengthen a handful of key Farm Bill programs that advance our industry.
On the topic of certification, our pilot program with USDA for offshore-produced vegetative cuttings got into full swing in December. Participating growing operations in six Latin American countries have implemented a risk-reducing systems approach, and imports are being monitored through March 31. More than one billion vegetative cuttings are imported each year to be grown on in the U.S. If the pilot is effective, it will enable expedited entry of these highly perishable starter plants, a sort of Global Entry for a key part of our supply chain.
Will 2018 See Relief From Growing Labor Woes?
A top industry concern continues to be the labor force, with most employers saying they have more job openings than applicants. Employers are using many strategies to deal with the worsening labor crisis — strategic investments in mechanization and automation, alternative labor sources such as refugees, or entering into programs like H-2A. Yet, there’s no complete substitute for an immigration reform bill that stabilizes horticulture’s current workforce and provides better legal programs for the future.
Unfortunately, the politics around this issue are a mess. When 14 farmers, including Tom Demaline, the board chairperson of AmericanHort, sat with President Trump and Agriculture Secretary Perdue in late April, they left convinced that real progress is within reach. However, key presidential advisors and political appointees in departments like Justice, Labor, and Homeland Security are unsympathetic or downright hostile.
AmericanHort is Working Hard on Your Behalf
Against this backdrop, AmericanHort is working on three fronts — legislative, administrative, and treaty-based. On the legislative front, it is not difficult to outline a solution that provides a reliable visa program for future workers, a way for experienced but unauthorized current workers to get right with the law and earn legal status, and integrity to the employment eligibility verification process.
For now, the hard-liners are uninterested in compromise, and all eyes are on whether and how Congress will address the fate of some 800,000 young people brought to the U.S. as children who have received relief from the threat of deportation. The so-called DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) issue has a hard deadline of March 5, after which status will begin to expire, so it will be the test of whether a sensible compromise can be reached.
On the administrative front, we worked with the National Council of Agricultural Employers to develop a menu of policy and regulatory changes that would make the H-2A visa program more workable. If we can gain some ground on administrative reforms, it will mean some relief for current and prospective H-2A users.
Finally, with the ongoing North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) negotiations, we are exploring treaty-based opportunities for better agricultural worker exchange between the U.S. and Mexico. The NAFTA process itself is quite uncertain, but our intent is to leave no stone unturned.
Getting plants to the market relies heavily on a functioning transportation system. In mid-December, new requirements took effect regarding drivers’ hours of service and electronic logging devices (ELD). We’ve spoken with a number of growers who ship on their own truck fleets and felt they were well prepared for the changes. Yet, most growers expressed great concern about trucking in terms of cost, availability, and drivers. Driverless trucks soon? Until then, we will be monitoring compliance and enforcement in this area, as well as any renewed efforts to drive investment in renewing America’s aging infrastructure.
Regardless of how you feel about politics, decisions made (or deferred) at every level of government will continue to have a huge impact on business, and the business of horticulture. For this reason, opting out of politics and direct, personal involvement in advocacy is not now, and never has been, a sound business strategy. The future will belong to those who perform now, grow tomorrow, and prepare. AmericanHort wishes you all the best for success together in 2018!