Colorado produce growers and lawmakers gather for inaugural legislative round table
Article written & submitted by: Kayla Young of SLY Media for The BARN & the Video produced by Alvaro Serey of SLY Media for The BARN
The BARN & SLY Media – AUGUST 24, 2016 – Colorado farmers and legislators came together Wednesday morning at Brighton’s Sakata Farms to discuss policy priorities for the state’s produce growers. Immigration reform and water policy dominated the dialogue, in what the Colorado Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association hoped would the first of many annual meetings to come with state policy makers.
CFVGA Executive Director Marilyn Bay Wentz said the event sought to highlight priorities for the produce sector and open communication channels between growers and policy makers.
Other organizers included Colorado Farm Bureau and the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union.
“Sometimes it’s just a matter of communication to be able to have an open dialogue about what is and isn’t working, so at a base level, this is an important event,” Wentz said.
“The association priorities are pretty much what you heard today. Labor is key. If you can’t have the labor to do the weeding and harvest the crop, you might as well pack it in because that’s the whole point. Certainly water is a close second to that.”
Farmer Robert Sakata pointed to his own cabbage-growing operation as a casualty of delayed immigration reform and barriers created by the H-2A program for temporary agricultural workers.
“This is the first year we’ve not grown cabbage. We used to always grow cabbage, but we got tired of leaving crop out in the field. We were losing money on it because we couldn’t find enough help,” Sakata told attendees.
Despite demand for locally grown produce, Sakata said his operation has not been able to justify the costs that come with the current program.
Jason Condon of Lafayette’s Isabelle Farm said the basic economics of the system has made it impossible for his operation to bring guest workers in as well. Requirements such as providing guest housing have eliminated the possibility for his operation to bring labor into Boulder County’s expensive real estate market.
“We don’t use H-2A because housing in Boulder County is absolutely nightmarish. So the idea of building housing for us is just not even in the question,” Condon said.
“If you’re making $15 an hour in Boulder, you’re probably not living in Boulder, but if you are, you’re at the bottom of the social rung. That’s really a problem to get people in to work for us.”
For Eaton’s Lynn Fagerberg the program has resulted in a bureaucratic headache that could result in layoffs.
“We were fortunate enough three-plus months ago to get a visit from Homeland Security. They came to our office and demanded all of our I-9s from the past three years. So we retained an attorney,” he told the audience.
“So at the end of the day what we think is going to happen is that they are going to come back with some fines because they have to justify their jobs. They’re going to make us let go a percent of our workforce.”
Fagerberg’s labor concerns were reiterated by Brighton’s Dave Petrocco of Petrocco Farms and Tim Ferrell of Berry Patch Farms.
Representative Mike Coffman, whose office collaborated with Sakata to organize the event, opened the question of how to best address agriculture’s interests in Congress. Coffman suggested the congressional agriculture committee lead the way on agricultural topics, rather than the judiciary committee.
For Representative Ken Buck, who serves on the judiciary committee, agriculture’s legislative issues come down to gridlock.
“We passed five bills in March of last year that never made it to the floor because our leadership refuses to deal with the immigration issue because it is such a tough issue. We’ve got to deal with the tough issues. I don’t want to get partisan but as Republicans, if we’re in the majority, we’ve got to do something about tough issues to show people that we can govern,” Buck said.
In attendance were also Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture Don Brown, and representatives for Senator Michael Bennet, Senator Cory Gardner, Congressman Jared Polis and Congressman Ed Perlmutter.
Following the roundtable, attendees had the chance tour Sakata’s packing operation, as well the packing facilities at Brighton’s Petrocco Farms. Workers processing fresh sweet corn and leafy greens demonstrated the manual labor necessary to deliver produce from farm to market.
After showing visitors through his greenhouse facility and sorting rooms, Dave Petrocco highlighted the need to collaborate on addressing issues in food production.
“It’s good to have our political people visit us because we want them to know what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and our needs,” Petrocco said. The needs that we have are beyond our control so we have to look to them to try to help us through critical issues we are facing.”
Written & submitted by:
Kayla Young of SLY Media for The BARN
Watch the webcast archive from the CFVGA/US Rep Coffman’s Legislative Roundtable @ https://livestream.com/BarnMedia/events/6219598