Delegation carries urgent messages to D.C.
May 17, 2006
By Ching Lee Assistant Editor
CFBF President Doug Mosebar and Sen. Dianne Feinstein discuss issues affecting California farmers and ranchers, including immigration reform, death tax and the Endangered Species Act, during a private meeting with members of Farm Bureau.
Farmers and ranchers representing the California Farm Bureau Federation took their concerns to Washington, D.C. last week as the Senate continues its debate on the controversial and divisive issue of immigration reform.
The 18-member delegation, joined by CFBF officers and staff, pounded the pavement of Capitol Hill and brought their personal stories to members of Congress who will craft legislation to deal with the growing number of undocumented workers in the United States.
Representing the unique diversity of California agriculture, the Farm Bureau entourage included farming segments ranging from winegrapes, timber, row crops and tree fruit to livestock, dairy, nuts and grain.
Some were Washington first-timers, while others have been around the 1600 Pennsylvania block a few times. Regardless of their political experience, they were there to put a face on California agriculture, which annually employs some 450,000 workers at peak harvest and 225,000 year-round.
At stake is not only their livelihood but also the viability of California agriculture and the security of the nation's food supply, half of which is provided by the state's family farmers. What they want is a system that allows guest workers to come to the United States to fill jobs where there are no domestic workers available. Such a program, they say, should also allow workers to return to their home countries when the work is complete
Much to the chagrin of agriculture and labor advocates, the House of Representatives in December passed a border enforcement-only measure, which has put the heat on the Senate to focus on broadening the legislation.
Senate discussion has centered on comprehensive immigration legislation that addresses both border enforcement and a guest worker plan to deal with the estimated 10 million to 12 million falsely documented immigrants living in the United States. The Senate's current version of the bill includes a stand-alone amendment that provides an agricultural guest worker program known as AgJOBS.
Sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the legislation was the first to recognize that the agricultural sector faces unique problems due to the seasonal and migratory nature of the work. But immigration reform faces huge hurdles as Senate leaders haggle over provisions in the bill that some say offer amnesty to illegal immigrants and wrongly reward individuals who cut ahead of those waiting for legal entry into the United States. Supporters of AgJOBS contend it is an earned adjustment, not amnesty.
If the Senate bill is approved, it will go before a Senate/House conference committee to craft a final bill. From there, it will return to the House and Senate for ratification.
In a meeting with Feinstein last week, CFBF delegates thanked the senator for championing the new AgJOBS legislation while seeking her support for prompt action in the Senate.
Feinstein told the group that the most "problematic" part of the comprehensive reform package is the guest worker program because it is viewed by many as a way "to undercut the trade union movement in areas" such as construction, hospitality and other service industries.
"We would be bringing guest workers to replace Americans," Feinstein said.
In the same breath, she also acknowledged that the "one industry we know this labor is necessary is ag." Many House leaders who supported the border enforcement-only legislation have concurred that agriculture and other industries rely on foreign workers to fill jobs.
Feinstein speculated that if nothing else, the final reform legislation will include some form of AgJOBS provision that would allow a guest worker program specifically for agriculture.
"If you transition everybody who is already here, if you do the AgJOBS part, if you do the other parts of the reform that are in the bill, it seems to me that enough is done," she said.
While the senator warned that a fallback position may be necessary to foster movement on immigration reform, CBFB First Vice President Paul Wenger said any compromises made on the legislation still need to include some form of guest worker program.
"If there's no way to allow a guest worker program and we end up with border security and an H2A program, we can't live with it," said Wenger, referring to the current guest worker program that many say is cumbersome and underutilized.
But immigration reform wasn't the only concern of the day.
Farm Bureau's visit with Feinstein was timely as the Senate prepares to take on the death tax debate this month. The House passed full repeal last year, and the senator has given her support for permanent repeal in the past, but the nation's current budget constraints and deficit have swayed her to back a higher tax exemption rate instead.
The death tax phase-out included in the 2001 tax cut package will end in 2011, at which time death taxes will be fully reinstated. The Farm Bureau strongly opposes the death tax and considers it unfair, unproductive and harmful to the overall economy.
Joe Pozzi, Sonoma County producer of sheep, lamb, wool and beef, told Feinstein about his family's financial struggles after his father's death in 2000 as they tried to keep the 1,200-acre family ranch in one piece.
"After the ?80s, with the land values exploding out there, the dollars that are in the bank to pay for something are very limited," said Pozzi. "They're tied up in the land, in the livestock, in the equipment that you're using to make the operation run."
Ventura County farmer Scott Deardorff also recounted his painful and costly experience of trying to protect his family's assets after the unexpected death of his father in 1997.
"I had to sell my dad's '65 Mustang to come up with enough money for my brothers and me to preserve our stock in the company," he told Feinstein. "If that were to happen today, I don't think we would be able to keep the company as a whole. Land values in the last 10 to 15 years have gone through the roof."
Feinstein said she recognizes the unique position California farmers and ranchers are in, but the death tax issue remains "a very complicated picture." She offered to work with Farm Bureau to develop solutions that recognize the land-rich, cash-poor position that many farmers face.
"You have to realize, we have never, ever been in a war and cut taxes," she said. "It's always been taxes going up in a war to be able to pay for the war."
She said she also finds value in "taxation based on worthy social goals" such as keeping small businesses and farming viable and intact.
"We do need entitlement reform," Feinstein acknowledged. "How to get it in a bipartisan way is extraordinarily difficult."
With four more years before the revival of federal estate taxes, Farm Bureau delegates emerging from their talks with congressional members agree that the issue may be put on hold as legislators squabble over other political hot potatoes such as immigration reform.
"It really sounds like everything is dead on arrival," said Chuck Badger, San Diego County farmer of lemons and oranges. "Because it's an election year, the death tax is probably not going to happen."
Santa Barbara County farmer Greg Baldwin said he got the same message from the congressional offices he visited.
"I don't think anything is going to get done on death tax either," said Baldwin, who grows winegrapes. "Our legislators realize that there's a need for something to be done, but I don't think that's something that's going to be tackled this term."
Another piece of legislation that could be put on the back burner is the Threatened and Endangered Species Recovery Act of 2005, which the House also approved last year.
The bill, authored by Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Stockton, attempts to overhaul the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which many say has not lived up to the law's intended species recovery goals. This legislation is expected to be up for a vote in either the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works or the full Senate this month.
But the sentiment among Farm Bureau delegates is that ESA will also have to wait until legislators can resolve some of the many burning issues they currently face.
"I don't see anything in the real close future changing on ESA, but I do believe we are making some headway," said Harry Dean, El Dorado County rancher.
Craig Knudson, Tulare County tree fruit and citrus grower, said House members he met with who did not vote for Pombo's bill "understand the need to update ESA."
"And the stories that we brought back really hit home with them," he said.
One was Joe Pozzi's experience with a restoration effort in western Sonoma County to improve habitat for the endangered fresh water shrimp and coho salmon. The project was entangled in two-and-a-half years of multi-agency red tape before it was finally approved. Pozzi noted that the actual restoration work took only four days to complete, and where habitat recovery was made, the species are now thriving.
"It's really an intriguing thought to know that the majority of the ground in the Western United States is owned by some form of government, yet the majority of endangered species live on privately held land," said CFBF President Doug Mosebar. "Obviously something is working and being done right by us in farming and ranching if the majority of species live on private land."
Regardless of how immigration, death tax and ESA play out in the political arena, Ventura County farmer Leslie Leavens-Crowe said California farmers and ranchers must continue to deliver their personal stories to legislative leaders in Washington, D.C. as well as on the home front.
"Our representatives so desperately need to hear from us in California agriculture," said Leavens-Crowe, who grows lemons and avocados. "The people who are with us, who are carrying our message forward, desperately need to have our support."
But those with different political agendas need to hear from California farmers and ranchers, too, she said.
"We are such a minority in agriculture and the people who don't understand California agriculture desperately need to hear our personal stories about how their votes are affecting us on the farm at home," she said.
David Drucker of Orange County said some farmers may be reluctant to get involved in politics because "it's frustrating," but issues that concern farmers are more than just political, he added.
"They're also economic issues," Drucker said. "It's their livelihood that's at stake."
Wenger expressed his gratitude to Farm Bureau members who continue to take time from their farms and ranches to push their message and show their presence to leaders and their staffers.
"We need to make those connections and nobody can tell the stories like our members," said Wenger. "And that's the strength of Farm Bureau. It's that grass-roots involvement that we need to continue to have folks come from the counties and be involved in programs like this."
(Ching Lee is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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