From SantaCruzSentinel.com, Jim Johnson, Monterey County Herald, 20 Apr 2011.
SALINAS [CA] — Excessive and unfair regulation is hampering the agricultural industry’s economic viability and capacity for creating jobs, according to a panel of agri-business leaders testifying before a congressional committee Tuesday.
At a hearing conducted at the Salinas Rotunda, six agricultural industry representatives told Reps. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, and Sam Farr, D-Carmel, that the environmental protection regulatory process, often made more complex by environmentalist groups’ lawsuits involving endangered species or clean water laws, make it difficult and expensive for farmers to follow the rules.
They also warned that implementing the controversial “e-verify” online system and requiring employers to determine if workers are in the country legally, without a guest worker program, would destroy the industry.
Issa, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, hosted the sixth in a series of hearings aimed at investigating the “regulatory impediments to job creation,” with Tuesday’s focus on the impact the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s actions have had on agriculture.
Farr, the ranking member of the House Appropriations subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, and other agencies, joined Issa at the local hearing.
Those testifying included Tom Nassif, president and CEO of the Western Growers Association; Jim Bogart, president of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California; Richard Smith, owner of Paraiso Vineyards in the Salinas Valley; Norm Groot, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau; Mike Jarrard, president and CEO of Mann Packing Co.; and Mark Murai, president of the California Strawberry Commission.
Nassif blasted the current practice of suing the EPA to force tougher regulations through legal settlements without input from the ag industry, which he called a “de facto rule-making process that is harmful to farming and of questionable benefit to the environment.”
“With a regulatory environment that is stifling job creation and economic opportunity, the majority of us must rely on off-farm income to support our families,” Nassif said, “an increasing number of us are moving our production off-shore, and some of us are simply shutting down our operations.”
Bogart called for requiring a cost-benefit analysis for all regulation, especially involving pesticides and waterways, Smith suggested the agricultural industry might have to resort to filing its own lawsuits to force regulatory changes, and Groot ripped excessive water- and air-quality rules, while calling for unified oversight of environmental protections.
Issa compared the regulation and enforcement of agriculture to being “ticketed for speeding when you’re not even in the car yet,” noting that farmers were being required to prove they weren’t polluting rather than reacting to proved pollution.
Farr said the issue “really calls out for a bigger reform,” agreeing that litigation had proliferated, and proposed a unified regulatory master plan designed to address all the critical issues.
He also warned that congressional Republicans’ plans to gut the EPA would leave the agricultural industry at the mercy of litigation, and suggested any reform of the agency should avoid the “meat axe approach.”
Issa asked if the endangered species act should be reformed to allow states to take over jurisdiction of locally listed plants and animals. Nassif said he preferred local control.
Issa also quizzed the agri-business leaders about the impact of implementing the e-verify system in an industry known to employ a high percentage of workers in the country illegally.
Bogart said it would create a “perfect storm” to require the use of the system without an effective guest worker program to provide the industry access to a workforce, and said that was more important than all other aspects of the business including regulation. He said the industry wants to see passage of the proposed Ag Jobs legislation, which would expand the guest worker program, allow a path to legalization, and is supported by both agri-business and labor.
Nassif said the agriculture industry supports secure borders, employer enforcement, and even the e-verify system, but only if it has a work force in place.
Farr said the impact of enforcement without reform would be especially severe locally, where he estimated at least 70 percent of the ag workforce is undocumented.
“To have that much of your workforce in the dark and in fear is a bad way to operate a community,” he said. “And it’s certainly a bad way to operate a large and complex agricultural operation.”