July/August 2013
Just Tell us the Rules so we can Get Back to Work By John Keeling, NPC Executive Vice President and CEO

I admit it: writing monthly columns for the potato trade publications is a challenge. While no one who’s ever met me can claim I suffer from a loss for words, writing about the ever-changing national public policy landscape a month before the column is published feels a lot like looking into a crystal ball.

But as I sit here in mid-June contemplating a column for the July/August publication of Spudman, I decided to go out on a limb and make three bold predictions about what will come to pass in our nation’s capital over the next few weeks.

One: The 2013 Farm Bill will be passed by the House, conferenced with the previously passed Senate bill, and sent to the president for his signature … or it won’t.

Two: Immigration reform will pass both chambers of Congress and become the new law of the land … or it won’t.

Three: I’ll win the Powerball lottery and begin my early retirement … or I won’t.

Like I said, these are some bold predictions. However, the first two, at least, demonstrate why so many of us in the agriculture sector are frustrated by the current bout of inaction in Washington. The federal government tells us that we need to play by their rules, but a lot of the time they don’t tell us what those rules are. All we get is the message that the laws are likely (or not!) to change.

For example, last year, Congress failed to pass a new five-year farm bill, leaving the agriculture community up in the air about some significant potential operational adjustments. Hard decisions that impact growers from across the agriculture sector having to do with price support programs, crop insurance, conservation programs, pest and disease research, and marketing programs – just to name a few – were all left to the 2013-14 Congress.

While kicking the public policy can down the road is as American as apple pie, the failure to act on the farm bill creates uncertainty in growers who are making plans for the next year’s planting season. How can growers be expected to plan for the future when they don’t know if – and when – the government is going to change the rules?

The same is true for immigration reform. A month ago, it seemed like the bipartisan immigration reform plan would fly through the Senate with enough support to force the House to act. Yet, the headlines in today’s newspaper tell a different story, and who knows what they’ll say in July. While congressional inaction may cause public opinion polls to fluctuate, the real impact is on small business owners who rely on foreign-born workers to keep their businesses afloat.

Included in the comprehensive immigration reform package is a fix to the Department of Labor’s broken H-2A Temporary Agricultural Worker program. The program was created to allow operators, such as farms and packing shed owners, to hire seasonal foreign labor to supplement the domestic worker pool. In practice, the program is a bureaucratic nightmare of endless paperwork, delays, rejections and attorney’s fees.

As Congress debates changing the guest worker rules, which would create more stability in the agricultural workforce and allow undocumented workers to seek legal status for being in the United States, business owners are forced to wait, not knowing if they’ll need to jump through the H-2A hoops for another growing season.

Some people say that things change quickly in Washington, D.C. While that can be true, most of the time we’re just waiting for someone to tell us the new rules of the game. Here’s hoping my next column will be written in celebration of a new farm bill or immigration reform law. That is, if I don’t win the lottery in the meantime. And since anytime I feel the urge to play the lottery, I just throw a dollar bill out my car window, not winning is a pretty good bet.

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