Some California growers are moving their operations out of the U.S. because heavy regulatory burdens and an increasingly uncertain supply of legal labor, Tom Nassif told a Congressional committee on Feb. 10.

Nassif, president of Western Growers, Irvine, Calif., spoke during a House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing on regulatory blocks to job creation.

“(Growers) are leaving because many regulations are not about common sense responsibility, but about compliance with an agency’s interpretation of the law regardless of the real world impact, available science and options for workable compliance,” he said.

In his remarks, Nassif said that a recent Congressional Research Service study found that $1 out of every $9 of California farm capital investment is spent on regulatory compliance.

“These are dollars which are not being used to create additional jobs and economic activity,” he said.

Nassif cited grower concerns with the Endangered Species Act and the federal guest agricultural worker program.

“Current activity under the Endangered Species Act threatens jobs supported by U.S. agriculture,” Nassif said.

Without restrictions from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect Delta smelt, water allocations in 2009 for California’s Central Valley growers would have been three times higher, he said. Although a 2010 federal court decision provided growers with some hope of relief, Nassif said an amendment to the Endangered Species Act is needed to protect endangered species and minimize economic harm to humans.

Labor regulations also are in need of reform. Nassif said the H-2A agricultural guest worker regulations have been substantially altered three times in the past three years. There are inconsistent interpretations of the regulations by Department of Labor employees and an “institutional hostility” to agricultural labor, Nassif said.

He asked the committee to address what he called an “overly punitive” enforcement strategies. While fixing the H-2A program won’t solve the farm labor problem — which accounts for only between 2% and 4% of agricultural labor — Nassif said a functional program is needed.

“Without improvements to this program and the manner in which it is implemented by the Department of Labor, United States agricultural and specialty crop production in particular will continue to suffer unnecessary financial loss due to produce being left to rot in the field because our farmers lack the labor they need and requested to get their food to consumers in America and around the world,” Nassif said.

After his testimony, Nassif said he appreciated the chance to speak before lawmakers about the regulatory burden that growers face.

“So often when we discuss these issues with regulators they fall on deaf ears, but when a member of Congress gets involved – especially a committee of jurisdiction with oversight responsibilities – then I think we get their attention,” he said.