WASHINGTON, D.C. — While the search for definitive solutions goes on, the United Fresh Produce Association’s Washington Conference provided a soapbox for industry leaders to express their passion for expanded trade, farm labor reform, and child nutrition program reauthorization.
About 450 industry leaders attended the event, up from 350 attendees a year ago, according to Tom Stenzel, president and CEO of the United Fresh Produce Association.
Attendees represented 40 states and six countries, according to United Fresh, and 22% of attendees were first-time attendees to the Washington Conference.
“We’ve heard repeatedly from different members of Congress, how important it is that (industry leaders) come to Washington, get engaged and tell (their) story,” Stenzel said. “That’s really been the success of this event for years and years, and it’s a way for our industry to raise our voice where it really counts.”
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue addressed the conference and said the Trump administration is working hard on expanding trade for fruit and vegetable growers (story, A4). Perdue also said the USDA is doing all it can to help growers fill their labor needs.
“Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue hit a home run with our audience,” Stenzel said, noting the audience gave him a standing ovation after his speech.
Addressing details of a new era of smarter food safety, Food and Drug Administrator deputy commissioner for food policy and response Frank Yiannas spoke at the conference Sept. 18.
Stenzel said the conference featured more than 200 meetings with members of the House of Representatives and the Senate during the Sept. 18-19 March on Capitol Hill.
During their visits, United Fresh Washington Conference attendees lobbied for passage of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, Stenzel said.
United Fresh chairman Michael Muzyk, president of Baldor Specialty Foods, Bronx, N.Y., said the event left him encouraged.
Muzyk said visits to lawmakers stressed the need for immigration reform, trade expansion and reauthorization of child nutrition programs.
“I have some hope that actually things are getting done in Washington, that there is some crossing of the aisle,” he said. “We’ve heard speakers from both parties talk about the need to get things done to represent their districts and I believe we are going to see some of those results in the near future,” he said.
At a workshop Sept. 17 Kristy Boswell, policy advisor for the White House, said Perdue has heard from growers all over the country about their challenges in finding legal workers.
“I think there was even a little bit of shock on how open the industry is about the instability caused by having a largely undocumented workforce,” Boswell said.
Carrie Meadows, chief of staff for Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., said the Trump administration’s regulatory changes to the H-2A program are welcomed, though she said Congress still needs to act to enact changes to the program that will make it easier to use.
Meadows said that labor legislation should be considered this fall rather than next year.
“It is not impossible (to pass immigration legislation) in a presidential election year, but it is much, much harder,” she said. P
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