My first year working at California's State Capitol in Sacramento was basically a lot of guesswork. And more often than not, I guessed wrong.
Western Growers Association was having a little shindig at a restaurant just down the street from the Capitol.
My boss at the time was a member of the Assembly Committee on Agriculture.
So naturally, we were invited.
I had never been to a WGA party. But I assumed that it was a fairly casual event because, well, they were farmers.
Yeah, not so much.
(That would be rap music, people.)
Oh yeah, I thought I was Ms. Thang in my favorite black Armani suit (with a subtle stripe). So I was especially miffed to find the women were better dressed than I —it just wasn't fair…they were supposed to be wearing overalls and straw hats!
But these women looked like they fell off the pages of Vogue!
I had no idea that California farmers did so well.
As it turned out, they were by far the wealthiest industry I ever encountered in Sacramento—and the most powerful lobby (with the exception of the California Teachers Association, worst by a wide margin).
"Peter Rabbit Farms, founded in 1950, is a 5,000 acre operation, including 2,000 acres of carrots, 600 acres of grapes, and 600 acres of lemons, grapefruit, and oranges. Peter Rabbit has 120 year-round and 1,500 peak winter employees."
Their motto? "We Just Keep Growing." Yeah.
Underestimating the farming industry is a mistake that many make—but none should.
In 1997, somewhat older and wiser, I was taking a couple of Assemblymen and one Senator on a tour of the Central Valley. We drove south on highway 99 and took an exit near Selma, California.
One Assemblyman said the area smelled like manure and fertilizer.
I laughed and said "You mean it smells like money and power."
Western Growers Association, based in Irvine, California, represents 3000 farmers in California and Arizona.
Honestly, I have mixed feelings about this industry. These are good, hard working, conservative people. Many of them became good friends.
They need more water, they need more subsidies, they need more tax exemptions and most of all…they need illegal farm workers.
Uh huh…they need them.
Last week, they told us the lettuce crop will rot because there is no one to harvest it. [Farmers fear winter crops will rot in Arizona's fields, by Bob Christie, The York Dispatch, October 25, 2005]
According to the farmers in Yuma County, tighter security on the Mexican border has created a farm labor shortage in Arizona.
Arizona produces 90 percent of the country's lettuce during the winter months.
And, apparently, only Mexicans can pick lettuce too.
Last week, representatives from WGA met with Yuma officials to warn them about the potential lettuce disaster. According to the Arizona Republic (State farmers lose workers, profits to border sweeps by Susan Carroll, November 3, 2005) they also made a formal request that border patrol agents pull back their efforts during the harvest.
Western Growers is currently lobbying in Washington for emergency legislation that would allow guest workers from Mexico on a temporary basis for this year's winter season.
Tom Nassif, a lawyer and former ambassador to Morocco, is the current President of WGA. [Email him.] After his meeting with Yuma officials, he summarized the plan during a press conference later in the day.
"We're trying to find a short-term solution until the Congress develops the political will to come up with compromise legislation that gives us a legal and stable work force." [Ariz. farmers fear worker shortage By Bob Christie, Associated Press October 24, 2005]
This is all justified by a…labor crisis?
According to Western Growers itself, the lettuce industry in Arizona has "exploded" over the last three years:
"Arizona's top fresh produce commodity is lettuce with $356 million in cash receipts for 2003, which has rapidly exploded to $590 million in 2004."
Yuma County, Arizona also has a 24 percent unemployment rate. [pdf]
Hmm…how can they have a 24% unemployment rate and a labor shortage at the same time?
The farming industry does not fear a cut in the food supply—it fears a cut in its profits.
But I'm not too worried about it.
Bryanna Bevens [email her] is a political consultant and former chief of staff for a member of the California State Assembly.