(Sept. 19) Attendees of the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association’s Washington Public Policy Conference on Sept. 13-16 addressed numerous topics facing the industry — but two issues came up frequently and aroused the most passion.

IMMIGRATION

It’s news to few in the industry that immigration reform and a better guest worker program are “critical,” as United president Tom Stenzel put it.

The H-2A system cannot provide an adequate and flexible supply of qualified foreign labor that many companies rely on to pick and pack their products.

The AgJobs bill, which failed to pass a previous vote, is still alive, said Brooke Roberts, a staffer for immigration reform proponent Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho.

Among the AgJobs’ advantages, according to guest worker legislation lobbyist Monte Lake of McGuiness, Norris & Williams, are reduced red tape and delays; a wage rate freeze; and installation of a mediation process to replace lengthy and costly litigation.

THE ESTATE TAX

Although not discussed as often during the conference, the permanent repeal of the dreaded “death tax,” as its foes call it, inspired the most passionate responses.

Its temporary exemptions are set to expire by 2010 unless the repeal is made permanent.

Rising land values in many parts of the country are putting more and more multigenerational produce enterprises’ future in question in the face of the possibility of punitive taxes.

WHAT TO DO?

Don’t just complain, campaign. Make the industry’s collective voice heard through efforts of United and other lobby groups.

But don’t stop there.

Do what you can in your community and region to educate the public (who ultimately are your customers, after all) about what the lack of access to guest labor would mean to them when they shop for fruits and vegetables.

Write letters to the editor of newspapers in your area, for example, and keep your points short and focused. Cite stories people can relate to rather than just figures-heavy studies.

Such tactics have utility in offing the estate tax, too.

The image of a sticky-fingered tax man endangering the future of a family business resonates with many small-business owners and the public alike.

Events like the conference are just one place to tell produce’s story.

Get the word out.