Horticulture Business Leaders Demand Resolution to Labor Struggles in Washington
An impressive group of more than 100 growers, garden center retailers, landscapers, and allied trades from the green industry gathered in Washington, DC, for AmericanHort’s legislative fly-in event, Impact Washington, September 11-13. The sold-out event was an importantly timed mission of advocacy for the green industry, providing opportunities to communicate with lawmakers about three of the most pressing issues we face – labor and the workforce, research and innovation, and tax reform.
Lawmakers and their staff who met with the attendees said the timing was impeccable, as Congress is in session and working on legislation pertinent to green industry priorities. The overall impression was that the agriculture industry has been seen and heard, and there is significant understanding and sympathy for the plight of American agriculture at the present moment, especially related to labor needs.
Speakers Wowed With Comprehensive, Informative Talks
During the event, underwritten by sponsors Hortica, Bayer CropScience, Nursery Supplies, AgFirst Farm Cred Bank, Farm Credit East, and Harrell’s, attendees were briefed on the issues to provide talking points that would help us best communicate the issues during our visits with members of Congress and their legislative aides on Capitol Hill. Part of those briefings included the opportunity to listen to talks presented by an impressive line-up of elected officials, advocacy experts, and thought leaders (stay tuned for more information on the key messages delivered by each speaker):
- Senator Thom Tillis, R-NC), a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee and a leading voice in the Senate for finding sensible ways to resolve the critical labor issues impacting our industry
- U.S. Representative Rodney Davis (R-IL), serving on the House Committee on Agriculture and the chair of the Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture, and Research
- Arturo Sarukhan, Mexican Ambassador to the U.S. from 2007 to 2013 and currently a distiguished affiliate and the Brookings Institution
- Ray Starling, Special Assistant to the President for Agriculture, Trade, and Food Assistance
So what exactly did Impact Washington attendees tell our lawmakers? Here is the breakdown of the messages we took to Capitol Hill:
Labor and the Workforce
On the morning of Sept. 13, just as we prepared to meet with our respective U.S. Representatives, the U.S. Department of Labor released a number that was helpful to our cause in discussing the industry’s plight finding enough labor: 6.1 million jobs – across all industries – are currently unable to be filled with domestic workers. That means, the U.S. government is starting to catch on to a truth that we have known for years – there simply aren’t enough domestic workers, or enough willing, to do the kind of work that an industry like horticulture requires.
That message fit in well with our goal to educate lawmakers and their staffs on the urgent need for agricultural labor reform; and H-2B program relief and immediate cap relief. Our points were clear – the green industry needs guestworker programs that provide enough workers on time for our busy seasons, and are not capped and in danger of maxing out as more growers and farmers in all areas of agriculture who are looking for labor resources apply for these programs.
H-2B: Both the H-2A and H-2B guestworker programs impact all areas of the green industry in a type of vicious cycle. H-2B, a program that provides non-agricultural service workers, is vital to landscape businesses across the country that struggle to find enough seasonal workers to sustain their businesses and supplement their American workforce in seasonal peaks. By enabling companies to staff up appropriately, H-2B helps secure and sustain employment opportunities for U.S. workers in the landscape sector and the horticulture supply chain. Without enough H-2B workers filling these positions, the supply chain comes to a standstill. If plants can’t be put in the ground, it backs up shipping and production from grower operations, as well. For these reasons, the industry supports emergency relief from the program’s unrealistic cap, as well as S. 792 (Save our Small and Seasonal Businesses Act) and H.R. 2004 (Strengthen Employment and Seasonal Opportunities Act.
According to AmericanHort, “these bipartisan bills would streamline the program to eliminate ambiguities and establish clear parameters for employers hiring H-2B workers, require better coordination between federal agencies, and bring transparency to the program operations for greater efficiency, while ensuring American workers are not displaced.”
H-2A: The path toward enlightenment in providing an adequate labor supply for agricultural and horticultural workers through a functional guestworker program has been a long, rough, and bumpy one. There have been several attempts made – and we were almost successful a couple of times – but to no avail. Currently half of the skilled and experienced workforce is believed to lack proper immigration status. The existing legal visa program, H-2A, has its share of problems and is not able to meet the fast-growing need in the face of worsening domestic labor shortages. While growers are investing in automation and mechanization that will help over time, major progress is slow, expensive, and sometimes cost-prohibitive to many.
According to AmericanHort, the needed fix has three components: provide an opportunity for experienced workers to early legal presence and agricultural work authorization; improve or replace H-2A with a more reliable program; and establish a new visa option that tests concepts like self-petitioning and visa portability.
Read more about how these fixes could help in an interview with AmericanHort’s Senior Vice President of Industry Advocacy and Research Craig Regelbrugge.
The President is currently working on identifying an effective tax reform plan, so it was an opportune time for green industry members to tell lawmakers about our needs and priorities.
Cash accounting and interest expensing are essential to greenhouse and nursery business practices. Accrual accounting has been proposed in the past for agriculture-based businesses, but because of the perishable nature of the products of the green industry, as well as the fact that every business prices items differently, it is simply not ideal. Modifying or eliminating cash accounting and interest expensing would significantly hurt small businesses across the country. Green industry members asked lawmakers to consider this in the new tax reform efforts.
Further, with the majority of green industry businesses being third and fourth generation, family owned and operated operations that are currently in the midst of a generational transfer, there is concern that highly valued land and facilities would not be able to shift affordably and potentially mean the end of these businesses. That’s why the elimination of the estate tax remains a key priority to the green industry, as well.
Research and Innovation
Despite the fact that nursery and greenhouse crops represent 15% of the value of U.S. agriculture, less than 1% of total USDA research dollars currently are allocated toward the green industry. These monies do not include – nor do we seek – government subsidies. Nevertheless, our industry has long enjoyed partnerships with the government that includes strategic investment in research, and plant pest prevention and mitigation. During Impact Washington, attendees asked for continued support for four critical USDA programs.
The Floriculture and Nursery Research Initiative (FNRI) partners the USDA-Agriculture Research Service (USDA-ARS) with land grant universities and the industry. It has been vital to developing efforts to mitigate and overcome pest and disease challenges, improve and enhance efficiency of production practices, develop more sustainable production practices, and advance economic and health benefits of the industry’s products. FNRI, currently funded at $4.6 million, recently received a boon when the House Agricultural Appropriations Committee proposed to provide an increase of $500,000.
Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI): A Farm Bill-funded program through USDA’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture, SCRI has funded significant interdisciplinary projects. Because labor-saving automation and mechanization are urgent research and development needs, the SCRI alliance seeks $25 million more annually in the next Farm Bill.
Farm Bill Section 10-007 -Plant Pest and Disease Management and Disaster Prevention: Administered by the USDA’s Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), this section of the Farm Bill strengthens infrastructure for pest detection, surveillance, identification, and threat mitigation, while protecting greenhouse and nursery production and also safeguarding other agricultural crops that could be affected. The industry seeks continued funding at the current annual $75 million and wants that increased to $82.5 million in the upcoming Farm Bill.
Specialty Crop Block Grant (SCBG Program): The Farm Bill provides block grants to states to fund research, development, and marketing proposals (like “Plant Something”, and a small amount is reserved for multi-state products. The industry wants to see continued funding.
There’s Still Time to Impact Washington
Find out how you can keep the momentum going, and support and add to the Impact Washington attendees’ efforts by contacting your members of Congress and talking to them about these priorities for the green industry. Developing relationships with your local, state, and U.S. lawmakers helps you tell your story about the issues important to your company and our industry. Find out how you can get more involved, and if you haven’t already, consider joining your local and national advocacy organizations. Visit the AmericanHort website to learn more about its advocacy efforts, and stay tuned for upcoming events.