Watch USApple’s Jim Bair and Diane Kurrle discuss the industry’s advocacy priorities for 2024.

On March 19, apple leaders from across the country will convene in Washington, D.C., for the U.S. Apple Association Capitol Hill Day. While Washington state is the nation’s leading apple producer, advancing industry priorities requires the support of members of Congress beyond the Pacific Northwest. That’s where USApple comes in. With production in 36 states, our political support often comes from unexpected places! 

Apple leaders from about a dozen states will participate in Capitol Hill Day, bringing their unique and personal experiences to the national debate on agricultural labor, trade policy and the next Farm Bill. Frustrations with the cost and administrative burdens of the H-2A program are universal, and the stories of challenges told by growers who need 1,000 harvest workers are often the same as those told by growers who need only 20. The same shared experience occurs with regard to the impact of pests and diseases, the importance of crop insurance and the recognition that a strong export market benefits everyone. 


The spiraling cost and regulatory burdens of the H-2A program will be top-of-mind for growers when they meet with their congressional delegations this month. Agricultural labor reform has long been USApple’s top legislative priority. We helped shape the Farm Workforce Modernization Act (FWMA) — championed by Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) — which passed the House twice but never got across the finish line in the Senate. The act includes common-sense reforms to the H-2A program, a cap on the percentage that the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR) can increase, and also provides work authorization for domestic farmworkers. 

The current climate in Congress is not conducive to broad reforms, so instead we are focused on a more surgical approach to provide targeted relief as soon as possible. The majority of apple growers are now in the H-2A program, and apple states consistently experience wage increases above the national average. That is why Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.) led efforts in January to include a one-year AEWR freeze in the federal funding bills currently under consideration. Members of Congress from the apple states of Washington, Michigan, New York, California, Virginia and Idaho joined that effort on a bipartisan basis. 

Reps. Newhouse and John Moolenaar (R-Mich.) recently introduced a bill to provide a two-year freeze on the AEWR. Their bill would also roll back the regulatory changes, finalized last year, that mandate a higher rate of pay if a worker performs tasks such as basic construction or driving fellow workers to the orchard, even if it is for a very minimal portion of the workday or contract. These changes have added cost and complexity to the program. 

The Newhouse/Moolenaar bill would apply a primary-duties test to determine the wage rate. USApple has led efforts to educate members of Congress on these regulations and co-hosted a briefing for House of Representatives staff last summer. USApple board member Katie Vargas from Michigan and USApple member Jim Saunders from Virginia were two of the growers who briefed attendees that day. 

Unfortunately, the Department of Labor and the Department of Homeland Security have now proposed additional regulatory changes that would: add further administrative burden and expense; make it easier for unions to gain access to farms and workers; increase penalties for employers; and even risk debarment from the program over honest mistakes. 

USApple is pushing back on these proposals. We submitted formal comments in November outlining the legal arguments against these changes, underscoring what they would mean for the industry and for our ability to continue to produce apples domestically. This is the message USApple leaders will deliver to their members of Congress on March 19.

Farm Bill

Apple leaders will also advocate for a new Farm Bill. The current legislation will expire on Sept. 30, and Agriculture Committee leaders in the House and Senate are pushing to get it across the finish line this spring. In addition to general programs like crop insurance, there is much in the Farm Bill specifically for specialty crops, so it’s important to get it right. 

Specialty crops are a priority for Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). She listens closely to the apple growers. House Agriculture Committee Chairman GT Thompson (R-Pa.) also looks out for specialty crops, as Pennsylvania is the No. 1 state for mushrooms and No. 4 for apples. As always, funding will be the biggest hurdle, and we are hard at work making the case that key programs should be continued and, in some cases, expanded.

USApple is a founding member of the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance. It was through the efforts of the alliance that programs such as the Specialty Crop Research Initiative and Specialty Crop Block Grant Program were created and first funded through the 2004 Farm Bill. Both programs have been widely utilized by the apple industry for a variety of initiatives, including: consumer marketing; irrigation technology; efforts to fight pests and diseases; and developing new rootstocks. 

The recipients of these funds include state grower associations such as the Washington State Tree Fruit Association and Michigan Apple Committee, as well as land grant universities in Washington, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Virginia. Importantly, research conducted on fire blight or fighting a new pest in one state can be utilized by growers in other states as well.

The alliance has been meeting for 18 months to develop a robust set of recommendations designed to expand and improve our current programs, as well as to advocate for new funding for emerging priorities like mechanization. After meeting with key legislators and hosting briefings for House and Senate Agriculture Committee staff, we have secured bipartisan and bicameral support for our efforts.

At USApple’s Capitol Hill Day, leaders from the top producing states of Washington, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania will thank their members of Congress for leading these efforts. Additionally, with leaders in town from California, Ohio, Virginia, Idaho, Utah and West Virginia, there will be an opportunity to recruit additional lawmakers to push for a new Farm Bill with strong specialty crop provisions.


Apple leaders will also focus on the importance of trade. Growers from all states understand that a strong export market benefits everyone as it ensures there isn’t an oversupply of apples in the domestic market. The industry took a big hit from retaliatory tariffs. This was particularly true in India, which had risen to be our No. 2 overseas market but dropped to near zero, resulting in a cumulative loss of $500 million. The tariffs were removed last June during Indian Prime Minister Modi’s visit with President Biden. 

This was a significant victory and was the result of industry efforts and pressure by congressional offices and key administration officials. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) led a trip to India last winter, and New York apple leaders briefed his trade staff prior to the trip. It was on that trip that Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) pushed hard for the removal of the tariffs with senators from other apple-growing states, including Virginia and Minnesota, backing her up as they, too, had heard from their growers. 

by Diane Kurrle

Diane Kurrle is the senior vice president for the U.S. Apple Association. She can be reached by email at: