WASHINGTON, June 24, 2017 - The topics were as varied as the crops grown in the South, but research and labor stood out as common threads at the three-hour listening session held today by the House Agriculture Committee at the University of Florida.
It was mostly farmers and ranchers from Florida and Georgia who made the trip to Gainesville to comment on the 2014 farm bill as well as make suggestions for the 2018 farm bill. One of the most common topics – labor – is a concern shared by agricultural producers across the country.
“An insufficient farm labor force continues to plague many agricultural commodity groups ranging from dairy to specialty crops in Florida,” said Florida Farm Bureau President John Hoblick. “Reforming our guest worker programs is integral to Florida. Florida was number one in certified H-2A labor use in 2016 with 13.8 percent of that usage being here in Florida. We could use more.”
The only legal guest worker program in the U.S. is the much-criticized H-2A program. Farmers complain that the program is slow, expensive, inefficient and often results in labor arriving after harvest season or not all.
Groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation have been lobbying Congress for years to reform the program or create a whole new guest worker program.
USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue told Agri-Pulse in April that President Donald Trump has challenged him to find a solution to the labor shortage.
“We talked about how we can work with the secretary of labor in the guest worker program, to make it work like it should again,” Perdue said. “We look forward to that challenge.”
Meanwhile, at Saturday’s hearing, Florida potato farmer Danny Barber told House Agriculture Committee members in attendance that the situation is so bad he sometimes can’t bring in his entire harvest.
“We don’t have the workers we need to produce and harvest our crops,” Barber said. “It hurts our competitiveness and local economy.”
Florida is most known for its citrus groves, and several farmers and scientists told the visiting lawmakers they need to fund more research into combating the citrus greening disease that is crippling the states orchards.
“We have a national citrus crisis,” said orange farmer Larry Black. “The future of the Florida citrus … industry is in the hands of the research scientists.
The tree-killing Huanglongbing disease, or citrus greening, has been ravaging Florida orange groves for years and is quickly bringing the industry to its knees. The Asian citrus psyllid is the bug that spreads citrus greening and it travels fast on the wind. USDA has spent about $400 million since 2009 on research to combat the disease, which causes fruit to shrivel and become unsellable as well as eventually killing the trees.
But more is needed, Hoblick said.
“Revenues have declined by $4.64 billion across the citrus industry over 10 seasons,” he said. “Citrus greening has also cost the state $1.76 billion in labor income with more than 34,000 jobs lost. Simply put, we need to continue to have federal funding to support the eradication of citrus greening.”
John Barber, another farmer who stood up to address the lawmakers, said simply: “Florida’s unique climate allows us to grow the best quality citrus products in the world, but our industry is at a crossroads and the future depends on research.”
Saturday’s listening session was the first of the farm bill cycle for the House Agriculture Committee. Lawmakers in attendance included: Texas Republican and committee chair Mike Conaway; committee vice chair Glenn Thompson, R-Pa.; Florida Republicans Neal Dunn and Ted Yoho; Rep. Al Lawson, D-Fla.; Georgia Republicans Austin Scott and Rick Allen; Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga.; Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark.; Rep. Roger Marshall, R-Kan.; Rep. Stacey Plaskett, D-V.I.; and Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif.
The Senate panel has held field hearings in Kansas and Michigan.
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