By MATTHEW D. ERNST
BRIDGETON, Mo. — Tom Stenzel put it plainly – immigrant labor is essential to the country’s fresh fruit and vegetable sector.
“If we don’t have immigrant labor to pack our fruits and vegetables, we’re not going to have an industry,” Stenzel, president/CEO of the United Fresh Produce Assoc., told a group of produce shippers and merchandisers from the St. Louis area on Aug. 6.
His comments came during a series of town hall meetings with produce industry insiders, during his annual cross-country listening tour and the Congressional recess. The fresh produce industry’s largest trade association, United Fresh played a leading role in forming the Agriculture Workforce Coalition (AWC), a group of farm and food interests to promote immigration policy favorable to the agriculture industry.
That coalition came together with the United Farm Workers (UFW) union to develop the agricultural immigration proposal reflected in the U.S. Senate’s immigration bill. That bill, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act, or S. 744, passed the Senate in late June.
Fresh fruit and vegetable growers are among the more vulnerable of industries if harsh penalties or immediate deportation were applied to illegal immigrant workers, said Stenzel. Producers check paperwork, he said, but the industry estimates 1 million of the 1.4 million immigrant laborers employed in the produce supply chain may have falsified documentation.
“That’s 70 percent of our entire labor force,” he said. “We’ve got to help them find a way to come legal.”
The AWC’s proposal, reflected in S. 744, calls for a “Blue Card” to existing agricultural workers who can document working in U.S. agriculture for a minimum of 100 work days, or 575 hours, in the two years before Dec. 31, 2012. After five years, Blue Card workers who pay all taxes and meet certain criteria, including no felony or misdemeanor convictions, could then pay a $400 fine and apply for a Green Card.
Along with other founding members of the AWC, who include the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Milk Producers Federation, United Fresh also lobbied for the formation of a special guest worker program. S. 744 provides for a new agricultural worker visa program to replace the current H-2A – a program the AWC says fails to meet the real needs of farm employers.
Stenzel said the produce industry needs to be able to hire temporary workers. He cited the relative ease with which Canadian produce grower-shippers can obtain immigrant labor, flying workers into the country for a harvest season before flying them back to Central America.
“That’s the kind of program we need to have in the U.S.,” he suggested at his Missouri stop.
S. 744 has wide support from farm and labor interests. In a June statement, UFW President Arturo S. Rodriguez said it “fulfills the urgent need for an earned legalization program that enables undocumented farm workers who are the backbone of the nation’s agricultural industry to swiftly obtain legal immigration status. It will also stabilize the farm labor workforce through incentives for immigrants to continue working in U.S. agriculture.”
The House is expected to address immigration legislation after the Congressional recess.
Growing fresh produce consumption
United Fresh continues efforts to increase the nation’s fresh fruit and vegetable consumption, and food safety concerns play a large part in a nation’s unwillingness to spend on fresh produce, said Stenzel.
“We ship six billion servings of bagged salad per year. What we’re trying to do is reassure the consumer they don’t have to be afraid of fresh produce,” he explained.
Because the fresh produce produces a product outdoors, there is always going to be some food safety risk. “We’re not going to have zero risk,” Stenzel told the St. Louis group. The fresh produce industry welcomes the new Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), he added.
“(FSMA) will equal the playing field for all fresh produce producers,” he said. “People come into the produce department, and they don’t have the confidence they need to grow their consumption of produce.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is accepting comment on a portion of the FSMA covering rules on imported produce through this November.
Stenzel’s comments came at a town hall-style gathering sponsored by Save-A-Lot. Bryan Roberts, senior manager for Produce Replenishment/Sales for Save-A-Lot, a value chain based in Earth City, Mo., said he appreciates the support. “United Fresh is a great partner in making sure the industry is adhering to food safety,” he noted.
Produce sales are up this season at their stores, said Roberts. “It was one of the most successful berry seasons for Save-A-Lot,” he stated. “We see produce sales increasing each year.”
While the customer segment most likely to shop at Save-A-Lot is not willing to pay large premiums for locally-grown produce, he said, its customers also like the idea their produce purchases may have been grown nearby.