April 2022
Farm labor reform stays atop National Potato Council’s list of concerns By Zeke Jennings

This is a recap from the National Potato Council’s (NPC) 2022 annual meeting, which took place March 1 in Washington, D.C.

Legislative Affairs Committee

The last time the NPC invited members to Washington, D.C., in February 2020, agriculture labor reform was the big topic. Two-plus years later, it’s still a huge topic. 

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act that passed in the House of Representatives last year still has not been addressed by the Senate. The hope of the NPC is that Sens. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Michael Bennet (D-Colorado) will lead a bipartisan effort to get a Senate bill through. 

Time is an issue, however. If a Senate ag labor bill isn’t passed before the November midterm elections, which could lead to Republicans retaking control of the Senate, it will likely mean starting over on the process. The message of the NPC and its members to Congresspeople while in Washington, D.C., was: Some kind of ag labor reform has to happen.

“We need to push, we need to make sure our message gets out that we really need something to happen on ag labor,” said RJ Andrus of Idaho, the NPC’s First Vice President the VP of the Legislative Affairs Committee.

The Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR) and guestworker program (H-2A) rates are front and center for farmers. The unpredictable fluctuations in wage requirements — rates have risen by 30% in some areas — need to be addressed, members of the committee said. 

National Potato Council CEO Kam Quarles said finding a sweet spot for all parties involved in such an item as broad as agriculture labor policy isn’t going to happen, so the priority should be finding a bill that moves the needle in the right direction.

“If folks want a perfect bill, they’re going to be waiting a very, very long time,” said Quarles, who cited the Farm Bill process that takes place every five years. “The Farm Bill always starts imperfect. The House and Senate both put forth imperfect bills, but by the time revisions are made, it’s usually a pretty good bill.” 

On the topic of the next Farm Bill, Quarles said talks have already started for the 2023 version, but added that, like the ag labor reform process, the midterm elections will play a role in how the bill evolves. 

“Whenever that train starts to roll, we have to be ready,” Quarles said. “One of the ways we’ve been able to do that over the past 20 years is the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance.” 

The alliance includes 300 commodities, giving the collective a much larger say in policymaking. It also has generated billions of dollars in aid for specialty crop industries over the years. The initiative has been so successful that classification as a specialty crop is quite attractive for other industries, something Quarles said current specialty crop industries should carefully consider. 

“The nature of the discussion around what specialty crops need is changing,” he said. “We’re all going to have to be really committed to this process. We have a bunch of new players and new ideas out there.”

The next version of Dietary Guidelines for Americans also is on the NPC’s radar. The group wants to make sure potatoes’ status doesn’t suffer in the next guidelines, as it did in the 2015 revision. The next guidelines go into effect in 2025. 

“The dietary guidelines are the cornerstone for all (federal nutritional) programs,” said Maggie Gentile, vice president of Food Directions. “Getting that right really is key so we don’t keep having all these problems.”

Other issues the NPC is watching include supply chain-related legislation, which includes new commercial driver license (CDL) mandates that are making it harder for truckers to get licensed, truck weight regulations and the Ocean Shipping Reform Act of 2021, which has been passed by the House and introduced in the Senate.

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Top photo: RJ Andrus, NPC VP of Legislative and Governmental Affairs, speaks on ag labor reform during a press conference in front of the Capitol on Feb. 26, 2020. Photo: Bill Schaefer Photography

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