Apple harvest season last year brought home to Dale Foreman just how important a reliable labor force was to his apple-growing operation. Some of his apples went unpicked because of a labor shortage in Washington State, and some were picked too late for best quality and ended up going for processing.
“Without ag labor reform, we are going to lose our investment in apples,” he said.
That realization caused him to do things he had never before done. A lifelong Republican, a former member of the Washington House of Representatives and leader of the party in Washington State, he organized a fundraiser for Senator Maria Cantwell, a Democrat seeking a third term in the U.S. Senate.
The reason: She committed to working for a bipartisan solution to the farm labor shortage.
The fundraiser itself caused little notice at the time. It was a month later that it made headlines, after Foreman spoke out at the U.S. Apple Association meeting in Chicago.
The attorney and apple grower, who owns the 1,200-acre Foreman Fruit and Land Company in Wenatchee and who chaired the U.S. Apple Association last year, took advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity as an apple industry leader to make an impassioned speech.
At the USApple Outlook and Marketing Conference in Chicago August 17, Foreman confessed to disappointment in the Republican Party because of its unwillingness to pursue agricultural labor reform.
With the apple industry facing a labor crisis of monumental proportions, he said, he has sought out representatives of any political party who will pledge to work for agricultural labor reform. He is supporting—and asking growers to support—candidates who will pledge to do that.
“I made a pretty major switch a few weeks ago,” he said. “I’ve written a lot of checks for political action committees, but they always had the letter R after them.”
The fundraiser was held at the home of Mike Wade, the general manager of Columbia Fruit Packers. Wade said he was impressed by Foreman’s political savvy and his idea to press hard for labor reform.
Foreman also praised others in the apple industry who support candidates who work for agriculture, no matter what political party.
In Michigan, USApple past chair Julia Rothwell is supporting Michigan Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow. She is chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee and is credited with authoring the specialty crops provisions in the 2008 Farm Bill.
Her committee, and the U.S. Senate, passed a new 2012 Farm Bill, retaining those provisions and addressing drought- and freeze-related issues now facing farmers. That bill, despite the urging of farm leaders, is being held up in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
Stabenow is seeking reelection against Republican Pete Hoekstra, who was ranking member of the U.S. House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence until 2010. Then he left the House to unsuccessfully run for governor of Michigan.
As a representative, Hoekstra represented Michigan’s most Republican district, a slice of western Michigan’s specialty crops region. He has voted in the past for measures to clamp down on illegal immigration and toughen border security but not for measures that would provide avenues to legal status for them.
Foreman, a lawyer who entered the orchard business in 1988, has been optimistically expanding in the apple business, despite early setbacks like the Alar scare in 1989, his first year in the business.
In the 1990s, he entered Washington State politics as a representative and went on to become a Republican Party leader. He was state Republican chairman from 1996 to 2000 and ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1996 and 2000.
After he became what he called “a recovering politician” in 2000, he was elected to the Washington Apple Commission and became involved in lobbying on behalf of the apple industry. As chair of the U.S. Apple Association, he worked for labor reform and testified before Congress last winter.
Now, he said, the labor situation is the most important threat to the state’s orchard businesses in the future.
His message to politicians: “While you guys can’t get together, we have millions of people who want to work and can’t work, and billions of dollars of fruit rotting in the fields or hanging on the trees. We need you to do something. Get off your butts. Let’s get together and get something passed here.
“How can we be optimistic and continue to grow our businesses? There is huge opportunity,” he said. He looks at all the people in China and India and the growing middle class of people who want high quality fruit.
“We have to have an ag labor law so we can get this wonderful fruit picked,” he said.
Mike Wade said the goal is to get a workable, compromise solution. “I agree with some key points of the opposition,” he said. “We can’t reward lawbreakers. But deportation is not the answer.”
In many cases, growers have hired the same workers year after year and are pleased with them. If some of them are illegal, there should be some way for them to pay penalties and make amends without growers having to give up their work force.
The fruit industry needs to get out from under this cloud of uncertainty, Wade said.
Foreman hopes that growers can send a message to their congressional representatives—especially Republicans—that they will lose their support if they can’t solve the labor problems that are threatening the future of their industry.