WASHINGTON — U.S. Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) spoke with specialty crop producers about the challenges facing the growing industry in a U.S. Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry subcommittee hearing. During conversations with Nick Carter, owner of Mud Creek Farm and co-founder of Market Wagon, and Charles Wingard, vice president/field operations of Walter P. Rawl and Sons, Senator Tuberville discussed ways to safeguard and incentivize domestic specialty crop production to make it a more viable industry for all producers.
Excerpts from Senator Tuberville’s remarks can be found below, and his full remarks can be found here.
ON IMPORTANCE OF SPECIALITY CROP PRODUCERS:
TUBERVILLE: “In Alabama, my home state — we have 3,500 cropped farms, 60,000 acres and growing, and hopefully continuing to grow, Mr. Carter. My concern is we’re losing our generations of farmers. We’re selling out because we can’t make any money. Some can. Some can’t. But I think specialty crops are going to be a boom for us and we talked about the SNAP program and farmers markets and all those things where people can actually make money with what they do. In this Farm Bill, we have to prioritize what we’re doing — safeguards for the small farmer, not just the big farmer. And we have to have competitive markets.”
ON ADVERSE EFFECT WAGE RATE PROGRAM:
TUBERVILLE: “Mr. Wingard, I want to ask you about this — in Alabama we have 200 farms that utilize H-2A programs. Temporary and seasonal workers. If we didn’t have that, they couldn’t survive. And now we have started this Adverse Effect Wage Rate Program that determines wages for the H-2A. And we want to up 14% this year and I think it will cost $8–10 million for our farmers. Give me your thoughts on that.”
WINGARD: “Okay, well first of all it is going to cost you more than [$]eight or 10 million.”
TUBERVILLE: “I am just talking about for our state.”
WINGARD: “I am talking about your state too…It will be a higher cost than that. The H-2A is a serious concern to us. It is literally an obstacle and one of the regulatory burdens you have heard about here today. Our H-2A wage rate in South Carolina is right at $15 an hour. We had the 14% pay raise too and Pennsylvania I think is $17 and Michigan is $17–$18. We don’t know as producers how it’s set. We don’t know what it is until about the tenth or maybe the fifth of December. And it goes into January first. And if we bring workers in November 1 for ten months, and we sign a contract and everyone agrees to the contract, then on January 1, the wage goes up. So, the contract really does not apply to the wages. It is becoming a disincentive for farmers to try to do it the right way as it speaks to labor. My business model and in my business, labor is about 30-35% of our total expenses. So that 15% wage rate we took in December — 5% fell straight to the bottom line. And when you have long term contracts, such as larger growers do, buyers don’t really care about what our wages did or about what our costs did. We agreed to the contract, and they expect us to deliver at that price, so now we have to cut costs somewhere else.”
TUBERVILLE: “What’s the answer?”
WINGARD: ‘The answer is fixing the labor program. Fixing the H-2A. Having some serious reforms in the H-2A program.”
ON ADJUSTED GROSS INCOME LIMITS
TUBERVILLE: “Mr. Carter, the Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) and other forms of means testing disproportionately impact specialty crop producers from participating in certain USDA disaster programs, like the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program (NAP) and Tree Assistance Program (TAP). However, the Emergency Relief Program (ERP) does not have a cap on AGI, allowing specialty crop producers opportunities for large payments to compensate for their losses. What are your thoughts on instituting a waiver of the AGI means test for the NAP and TAP disaster programs, when operations derive at least 75% of their income from farming and forestry? What impact would that have on family farms and the specialty crop growers?”
CARTER: “Generally, I think that having the AGI limits on any of these benefits seems counterproductive. I am not personally knowledgeable — I don’t have any direct experience in that situation, but it seems that taking the most profitable, which typically in a free-market enterprise means the most successful and the best at what they do, and tell them that they are not eligible to have risk mitigation. It doesn’t stand to reason to me.”
TUBERVILLE: “Anybody want to comment? Anybody else?”
WINGARD: “I agree with your thoughts, and I think that the AGI means testing is punishing those who did their best and those who took the risk, grew, [and] reinvested in their company. I think the AGI means testing punishes them.”
ON INCENTIVIZING DOMESTIC AGRICULTURE PRODUCTION:
TUBERVILLE: “Mr. Wingard or Mr. Carter or anybody, our Southeast fruit and vegetable growers are impacted by cheap imports from countries that do not adhere to our nation’s environmental and labor laws. Neither the USMCA (U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement) or the International Trade Commission has resolved these issues. Growers continue to see Mexican and South American imports hit grocery stores at the same time as U.S. harvests, decreasing the price our farmers receive for their products. Should this be addressed in the Farm Bill? Any recommendations?”
WINGARD: “So, Coach, the U.S. domestic producers have high costs to produce our food because of regulations and high standards… and we invest in our people, our process and our facilities in order to achieve those standards and to meet the regulations. If the Farm Bill wants to address that, and I think that is fine to do, then we need tools like market development. We need money for research and technology. We need access to better crop enhancement materials so we can spend $25 an acre on weed control with effective herbicide, instead of $225 or $325 an acre using hand pulling [methods] — we call that pull it. We need access to robotics. We need research on robotics — robotic weed control, robotic weeders, robotic transplanters — which is what we are looking at. And we need improved varieties that have better disease resistant, drought resistant, pest resistance and other ways that to can help us offset the cost of our production.”
TUBERVILLE: “Basically, you need the tools to be able compete.”
WINGARD: “We need more tools in the toolbox. Yes sir. More plays in the playbook.”
Senator Tommy Tuberville represents Alabama in the United States Senate and is a member of the Senate Armed Services, Agriculture, Veterans’ Affairs, and HELP Committees.