WASHINGTON, July 12, 2017 – Witnesses and lawmakers at a House Agriculture Committee hearing today showed broad support for immigration reform and mechanization research to address labor shortages faced by specialty crop producers.

“Consumer demand is increasing but natural resources remain fixed and the labor supply is shrinking,” said Rep. Collin Peterson, the panel’s ranking Democrat. Peterson represents Minnesota, a state that produces large amounts of specialty crops like apples, pumpkins, strawberries and sweet corn.

Specialty crops, including fruits, vegetables and tree nuts, represent just 1 percent of farm bill funding, according to Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation. But another witness, Andrew LaVigne, CEO of the American Seed Trade Association, said specialty crops have an impressive farm gate value of $11 billion.

Although the industry is ripe with challenges, witness Gary Wishnatzki, owner of Wish Farms located in Plant City, Florida, said “availability of labor is the greatest of these challenges.”

Wenger echoed Wishnatzki: “While it is outside the jurisdiction of this committee, we ask first and foremost that Congress move rapidly toward allowing a legal workforce in the United States to guarantee that future immigrants who desire to work in American agriculture be allowed entry.”

Additionally, Wenger said he strongly opposes mandatory E-Verify, an online system that provides immigration status which is used as a prescreening for hundreds of thousands of employers. E-Verify has been voluntary since 1996, but the Trump FY 2018 budget calls for implementation of mandatory E-Verify.

Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, noted that the House Judiciary Committee has jurisdiction over immigration reform and that he is in conversation with that panel’s chairman, Bob Goodlatte R-Va., about his proposed reform plan. In his concluding statement, Conaway emphasized that the impact of an E-Verify mandate “is not lost on Mr. Goodlatte or the rest of us in terms of how we implement that.”

Wenger told the lawmakers that mechanization may be the industry’s future with robots harvesting specialty crops that are currently collected by humans. “If we don’t aggressively invest in the development of new technologies, the consequence will be to lose a large share of our nation’s specialty crop production,” Wenger said.

Witness Kevin Murphy, CEO of Driscoll's Inc., the California-based berry producer, said that private industry is currently spearheading research for mechanization, and he encouraged the government to support public-private partnerships and innovation in the next farm bill.  

But until mechanization eliminates the need for people to hand-pick crops, immigration reform is a top priority to ensure an adequate and legal labor force, the witnesses said.

(Conaway’s opening statement and the written testimony of all witnesses can be found by clicking here.)