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When Dad farmed, usually his biggest problem was the weather. He worried about an early freeze on snap beans, or the ground being too wet to harvest potatoes, or having too much snow in the winter to load the potato trucks going south. Issues such as immigration, border security, transportation, specialty crop funding, farm bill, trade barriers, tariffs, and low-cost imports were not discussed around the dinner table, at least not in upstate New York.

Table talk

If Dad was alive and still farming, the table talk would be much different today. Geographic location today no longer isolates areas of agriculture from most of those issues. From southern California, across the plains to northern New York and New England, today’s farmers are all faced with insurmountable issues that go way beyond the actual practice of farming. These concerns have nothing to do with what brand of tractor to purchase, which field to plant, which seed to order, or what variety and rootstock to plant. When Dad farmed, those everyday issues took all of his time and effort to address. If these issues are not addressed, then the roundtable discussions will include topics such as auction, foreclosure, and going-out-of-business sales.

A common message

The most effective way to address these problems is through organizations that represent U.S. agriculture with a common message and a unified approach. The most effective way for U.S. farmers to address these issues is through their financial support of agricultural trade groups. Fortunately for us, we have at least two very strong and effective groups. Speaking from a fruit and vegetable perspective, United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association and U.S. Apple Association are two of the best vehicles we have to address our challenges in 2006.

Let’s just look at the immigration issue and the disastrous consequence to our industry if the “Illegal Immigration Enforcement and Social Security Act of 2005” becomes law. If the Senate follows the House and enacts any type of enforcement-only approach, without guest-worker provisions, then you can bet the farm on losing your labor source. It may be a worthless bet at best.

My friend Dave Carlson of the Washington Apple Commission and I occasionally disagree on who has the better-tasting apple, but we certainly never disagree on the importance of an acceptable guest-worker program for the United States. His reports of outlandish fines, litigation, and settlements against agricultural employers resonate across both of our growing areas.

Here in New York, growers are being sued by so-called not-for-profit farm labor advocacy groups that somehow find the resources to hire high-priced lawyers from cities like Chicago and New York. Regardless of the size of your operation, the added costs to fight these charges can add up quickly and could force you out of business. Diverting your attention away from your everyday responsibilities of running your business to deal with these outside issues will also adversely affect your business.

This reason alone should be justification enough to support UFFVA and USApple. Both organizations working in concert with other farm groups across the country have the talent and the expertise to go head to head with lawmakers, to further our agenda, to protect your investments, and to secure your future, while allowing you to focus on your business.

When Dad farmed in the 1950s,
he was active in the New York State Vegetable Growers Association and sat on the National Vegetable Growers Association board of directors. He recognized the need to band together to help further national causes, such as having Social Security benefits extended to farmers in 1954.

A different industry

At the same time, as many of you know from either growing up in that era or farming during those times, it was a vastly different industry with different issues—especially for the fruit and vegetable industries that were regionalized, seasonal, and very parochial. Each region generally provided enough labor, plenty of markets, and enough customers to create a profitable balance for all.

It was not a global market, and imported food products were very rare. Except for commodity products, the need to export U.S. farm goods was insignificant. Thus, many problems and issues were localized and usually dealt with through the local grange or Farm Bureau. U.S. agriculture had some problems in those years, but generally speaking, life was good on the farm, and businesses thrived.

Challenges

Today, the challenges are many, and the issues are larger than ever. From labor to energy costs to shrinking markets and increased imports, the success of American agriculture will not only be tested in the fields, vineyards, and orchards, but it will also be challenged in the courts and the halls of government.

To meet these challenges, now more than ever, the fruit and vegetable industries have to pick a strong horse to win this race for survival. UFFVA and USApple are my picks. I encourage you all to saddle up and support these organizations. If we do nothing, we may be at the wrong end of a lame mule, going the wrong way. 

Jim Allen is president of the New York Apple Association.