Virtual forum outlines issues facing agriculture industry
While the current COVID-19 pandemic has made things a lot harder for people in the agricultural industry, these issues have been further exacerbated by the novel coronavirus and the current wildfires plaguing California.
Keeping employees safe is at the forefront of every employer’s mind and one thing agriculture farmers need, especially right now, are N-95 masks specially designed for these workers.
“There’s the need for N-95 masks specially designed for agriculture. Currently, we can get the N-95 and KN-95 that are specially designed for our sprayers, but with the current status of the air quality in the states, there’s a huge demand,” said Teri Bontrager, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Farm Bureau.
Ms. Bontrager, along with other local leaders in the ag industry across the Central Coast, shared these concerns and many more Friday during a virtual town hall hosted by Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Santa Barbara.
Personal protective equipment has been a topic of discussion since the pandemic began. With the current fires and upcoming harvest season, ag workers need the masks just as much, if not more than other essential workers.
“The masks that we have, it’s on a one-time temporary basis and we need more help to help our farmers out. Our employees are so important to us and we want to keep them as safe as we possibly can,” Ms. Bontrager said.
Claire Wyman from Growers Shippers Association in Santa Maria shared the same sentiment as Ms. Bontrager saying ongoing challenges include “testing materials, the need for those expedited testing and the associated equipment and supplies.”
Joel Peterson, executive director of Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, also agreed.
“It’s been mentioned a couple of times already today, but keeping our agricultural and farm workers safe (is important). We need proper testing and even more testing. We need PPE, specifically N-95 masks to protect our field and farmworkers. This is essential, we don’t survive without this,” Mr. Peterson said.
Another issue shared by Ms. Bontrager is that many people in Santa Maria want some support for the Santa Maria Fairgrounds.
“The fairgrounds are the lifeblood to our community… the heartbeat of our local community,” Ms. Bontrager said.
Jeff Newton, owner of Coastal Vineyard Care Associates, shared an issue that has existed for many years but has only become worse: a lack of workers.
“Our biggest issue is and continues to be around labor and the lack of it. It’s been a net-zero migration since about 2008,” Mr. Newton shared.
Net-zero migration means that the number of people coming into the United States to work as an agricultural farmer, usually from Mexico, is the same amount as those leaving said work for other places, usually going back to Mexico and working in the fields there.
“That’s resulted in a shortage of workers for us and our crews are getting older and Hispanics are discouraged because of (President) Trump’s rage over Mexicans,” Mr. Newton said.
“Other than the H2-A program, which needs to be broadened for sure, costs need to come down for small growers and we need a more comprehensive guest-worker program… If we don’t move in that direction, we will begin to lose agriculture in California. A lot of crops have already shifted into Mexico and will continue to.”
Rep. Carbajal tackled these issues and more head-on, responding with the legislative work he is currently undertaking to try to combat these problems.
In terms of the lack of labor, Rep. Carbajal agreed with Mr. Newton and brought up his work with the Farm Workforce Modernization Act.
The bill would provide a path to legalization for illegal immigrant farmworkers and their immediate family so that they can have more freedom to work in the fields without worry while also aiming to streamline the H2-A visa program, a system that allows farmers to recruit foreign employees for temporary positions.
It is a bipartisan bill in which the California Farm Bureau, the United States Chamber of Commerce, the United Farm Workers of America were a part of.
The bill passed the House in December 2019 but has not moved since, something Rep. Carbajal hopes will change after the current election cycle.
“It was a good, cohesive group of stakeholders that came together and I’m very proud of that work. The only problem is that it hasn’t moved forward in the Senate… and you touched on it (but) we have a climate that hasn’t lent itself to being more embracing of moving forward with comprehensive immigration reform,” Rep. Carbajal said.
Addressing the PPE and testing issue, Rep. Carbajal said that the HEROES Act, a $3 billion stimulus package in response to the pandemic passed in May, played a huge role in getting PPE into the hands of essential workers.
A similar measure has been stuck in the Senate since the end of July, which would also “address a lot more funding and support to be able to provide that support in terms of testing, tracing and treatment,” Rep. Carbajal said.
As a result, he is hopeful that the upcoming economic relief package comes “sooner rather than later.”
In terms of the Santa Maria Fairgrounds, Rep. Carbajal said he has signed onto a number of efforts and legislation to support fairgrounds across the country. He hopes it will also be considered in the upcoming economic relief package.
“I have heard you loud and clear and I have co-sponsored legislation to see this issue resolved soon,” Rep. Carbajal said.
In response to Rep. Carbajal’s virtual forum, Andy Caldwell, who is challenging for Rep. Carbajal’s seat, criticized the congressman for supporting Proposition 15, which Mr. Caldwell said is opposed by at least a dozen local ag industry leaders.
“Salud is ON the Agriculture Committee, yet the only bill he has helped pass is co-sponsoring a resolution naming July as ‘Grown Flower Month.’ WHERE’S THE BEEF?” Mr. Caldwell told the News-Press over email.
Mr. Caldwell is a News-Press columnist.