A closed Capitol

Farm Forum

WASHINGTON – There has never been a Washington meeting of the United Fresh Produce Association like this.

Over the course of two days, the fruit and vegetable growers and industry executives who came to Washington to lobby on immigration reform and other issues experienced the expiration of the farm bill and the government shutdown. They also booed a congressman who told them he did not think immigration reform would pass and heard a series of government officials tell them that if they want to accomplish anything they are going to have to keep pressing Congress and the Obama administration at least as hard as they have in the past.

The expiration of the farm bill had little impact on the industry except that the U.S. Department of Agriculture will lose authority to promote U.S. agricultural products overseas. But the shutdown caused the Food and Drug Administration to stop inspection of fruits and vegetables and other food under its jurisdiction and to cancel a briefing on the Food Safety Modernization Act and a speech by Michael Taylor, the FDA deputy commissioner for food. In addition, Sam Kass, the deputy White House chef who heads First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign against childhood obesity, was furloughed and had to cancel a luncheon speech that had been in the works for three years. Fresh Festival, the group’s event at which they try to show members of Congress and their staffs what they produce, had to be moved from a Capitol Hill cafeteria to a hotel.

“Have you had enough of this?” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asked the group before telling them it is their patriotic duty to speak frankly to members of Congress. “It shouldn’t be just polite conversation,” Vilsack said. “As patriots you have a responsibility to knock some sense into folks up there.”

Stabenow, after noting all the progress the industry has made in getting proper consideration in the farm bills since 1996, said, “I hope you will go forward and express that we need to get back to governing and we need to get things done.”

Vilsack and Stabenow delivered the same message: Tell the House to end the shutdown and pass a farm bill and immigration reform.

United Fresh President Tom Stenzel took up the message. As he sent the attendees to lobby House members, Stenzel said, “It’s time for us to be patriots.” Stenzel urged them to try to get members and staff to focus on immigration reform, but warned them “to be prepared for a different type of feel” than in previous years. The United Fresh members did the best they could, but some House offices canceled their meetings and all the Senate meetings were canceled.

Back at the hotel, a series of House members gave varying reports on what to expect on immigration reform, the growers’ key issue.

“I do not believe there will be a comprehensive immigration bill passed this year,” said Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., the chairman of the House Agriculture Horticulture, Research, Biotechnology and Foreign Subcommittee. Describing himself as a conservative who is “one generation from the trailer park,” Scott explained that he doesn’t think President Obama will support an immigration reform bill that doesn’t include a path to citizenship, and that the House won’t pass a bill that includes it. Scott also said he does not believe most immigrants want to become American citizens.

After some members of the audience booed, Scott said, “I heard the boos out there, I understand how important it is out there. I want a solution too.”

Later, Steve Scaroni, a Heber, Calif.-based grower and packager of lettuce, told the Capital Press, “I’m not giving another dime to Republicans until this immigration thing is fixed.”

During the meeting, the House sent the combined farm and nutrition bills to the House, and the Senate asked for a conference, paving the way for the House to appoint conferees. Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., the highest ranking Democrat on the horticulture subcommittee, said he is “actually optimistic” that the farm bill could be a path for members of the House “learning to work together again.”

But on the immigration issue, Schrader and Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., both said the public has to exert more pressure for immigration reform.

Members of United Fresh “who earn their living on the land” need to “be in the papers back home” speaking out on issues and defending members who vote for issues they care about, Schrader said.

But a big problem, Denham said, is that so many Republican House members live in districts with less than 1 percent Hispanic population.

“We have to get to those members,” he said. “I am encouraging the faith-based community to go out to every district. We have to get them to focus.”

Most bills that come up in Congress have deadlines, Denham added, but immigration reform does not. The House leadership has “slotted” immigration reform for this fall, he said, “but I guarantee if there is another Syria, another issue, it will get pushed into next year.”

Denham told the group, “Thank you for being here, but keep it up. If we are not the loudest group around here in Washington, D.C., it will not get done this year.”