Six growers and trade association representatives testified on regulatory reform at a rare Salinas, Calif., congressional field hearing.

The topics covered April 19 included everything from the federal Environmental Protection Agency and Endangered Species Act to immigration and the state water board.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chair of the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, led the hearing. Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif. — ranking member of the appropriations agriculture subcommittee — participated.

Obstacles to job creation were the common thread for the topics, Issa said. His committee has had seven field hearings so far, including one the same day in New York.

Industry testifies to Congress in Salinas
Industry testifies to Congress in Salinas

Mike Hornick

Tom Nassif, (from left), president of Western Growers Association; Jim Bogart, president of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California; Rich Smith, owner of Paraiso Vineyards; Norm Groot, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau; and Mike Jarrard, president of Mann Packing Co., give testimony April 19 at a field hearing of the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in Salinas, Calif.

“They’re going all over the country,” said Tom Nassif, president of Western Growers Association. “They’ll find what they can pursue and decide what reform measures they think need to be undertaken. They can’t investigate everything.”

Beside Nassif, the two congressmen heard from Mike Jarrard, president of Mann Packing Co.; Mark Murai, president of the California Strawberry Commission; Rich Smith, owner of Paraiso Vineyards; Jim Bogart, president of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California; and Norm Groot, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau.

All lamented regulatory policymaking that they — and sometimes Farr and Issa — described as incoherent, costly and lacking in openness.

One example involved the phase-out of a soil fumigant used by strawberry growers.

“The (Environmental Protection Agency) reduced the critical use exemption for methyl bromide by 50% because it said new alternatives were available,” Murai said, referring to federal approval of methyl iodide and sulfuro fluoride. “Now the EPA is taking comment on petitions to cancel both substitute products. But it’s failed to take any corrective action to restore the critical use exemption.”

Jarrard faulted the EPA, he said, for developing water discharge rules in line with criteria from a court settlement in Florida rather than through open proceedings.

“It’s a process we have to go through, it can’t just be a mandate,” Jarrard said. “If we can somehow just create some common ground and some cooperation among the regulatory agencies and the farming community, we can get down the road a lot quicker.”

“People in government at the state and federal levels are afraid to make decisions, because they’re being sued left and right,” Farr said. “Now we don’t know what the rules of the game are, because every level of government creates their own without consultation.”

But in practice, Nassif said, consultation has been a mixed blessing.

“The EPA makes a finding, and then if there’s a consultation process, another agency can overturn that,” Nassif said. “Then if EPA says they don’t agree, they don’t get immunity from lawsuits, so they’re hesitant. You’ve taken away the primary function of the EPA on these issues and given the services you’re consulting almost appellate power to overrule you.”

Immigration

The other major obstacle to job creation, as those testifying saw it, is lack of immigration reform. They embraced various permutations of that, from guest worker programs to the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act that’s stalled in Congress.

Immigration is always a hot-button issue in the Salinas Valley, where Farr said up to 70% of the local workforce is undocumented.

“That’s a fair estimate,” Jarrard said after the hearing. “Only 10% of the undocumented workforce is represented by agriculture, but ag is the most visible because we work in an open environment rather than behind the wall of a factory or restaurant.”

“Immigration is a huge issue and always has been,” Nassif said. “I hope one day we’ll have the kind of guest worker program in this country that we need and deserve. And resolve the issues we have with not being able to find people to do this … backbreaking labor.”