FEDERAL OUTLOOK: Outlook for Horticulture in 2020

By Craig Regelbrugge | Senior Vice President of Advocacy & Research | AmericanHort

Craig Regelbrugge
Craig Regelbrugge AmericanHort

It’s a new year, it’s a new decade! And with both, we at AmericanHort are actively seeking new opportunities to advocate for and achieve solutions to some of the horticulture industry’s most vexing challenges. Of course, some of the challenges themselves are not so new – labor, trucking, plant health threats, and funding horticultural research. Success will help enable our member businesses to perform better, grow faster, and prepare for the future. So what’s the outlook for 2020?

On the labor front, the year started on the rough side for landscape companies supplementing their workforce with the H-2B visa program. The first-half visa cap was hit earlier than ever in December 2019, and employers with April 1 dates of need applied to fill almost 100,000 seasonal jobs with H-2B seasonal workers. Only 33,000 visas are available. The Labor Department did a “lottery,” assigning applications into priority groups, kind of like the Southwest Airlines boarding process. But, in this case, unless you got Group A, you aren’t even assured a middle seat in the back. Cap relief is urgently needed.

At the end of 2019, Congress extended Homeland Security’s authority to release additional visas. Hopefully, Acting Secretary Chad Wolf will move fast to release all the visas authorized. The path of least resistance will be to release 30,000 as in 2019. But that would leave a lot of employers hanging. There’s a full-court press on to get as many as possible released.

History-Making Labor Legislation

On the ag labor front, including nursery and greenhouse workers, history was made on December 11, 2019, when the House of Representatives passed H.R.5038, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, on a bipartisan 260 – 165 vote. Just about every Democrat was joined by 34 Republicans to push this bill across the finish line. It has been 33 years since the House last acted affirmatively on ag workforce legislation.

The bill does three things. First, it provides several options for current but unauthorized farm workers to earn legal status over time. Secondly, it improves the existing H-2A program, including streamlining, limiting annual wage increases, and allowing for some H-2A workers to fill non-seasonal or year-round jobs. Thirdly, it would phase in the E-Verify program after the other reforms are in place.

The bill does not achieve everything we would like to see, but it is a good start. On wages, for instance, the 3.25% cap on annual increases would shield Colorado from the 8.6% H-2A wage increase that just took effect, on top of the whopping 22.8% increase last year.  We were pleased to see Rep. Scott Tipton (R-CO) vote in favor, as did all the Centennial State’s Democrats. Now, attention turns to the Senate, where a group of Senators is organizing to work on their version of a reform bill. While there is no easy path forward in these fractious and polarized political times, we simply must prepare. And, a Supreme Court decision in June on the DACA program may create a crisis that catalyzes action. We aim to be ready for any window of opportunity.

Trucking, Plant Health & Trade

On the trucking and logistics front, we’ve laid the groundwork for a “fix” to the regulatory definition of “agriculture.” We need horticulture explicitly included in the definition, or truckers will face ambiguity and confusion over whether they qualify for the partial exemption ag enjoys under the hours of service and electronic logging device regulations. We have bills in both the House and Senate to fix the problem, and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is now considering potential rule changes.

On plant health and trade, we’ve always got four or five priorities in play. Boxwood health is a big focus right now. And, there are major efforts underway to modernize plant certification.  Nineteen growing operations from coast to coast and border to border are piloting the Systems Approach to Nursery Certification (SANC) program, and finding that SANC transforms organizational culture and leads to better plant health and quality. Near to CNGA members, Loma Vista Nursery in Kansas is one of the SANC pilot nurseries. The program is expected to be fully operational and open to new participants in January 2021. More information can be found at http://sanc.nationalplantboard.org.

Before leaving plant health, just a quick mention that AmericanHort has formally recognized Plant Sentry™ as our newest affinity partner. Plant Sentry™ has developed an extensive database of federal and state plant pest and invasive plant regulatory restrictions, and web interfaces for growers, retailers, and e-Commerce that allow users to verify if restrictions apply for each plant they produce, wherever they sell, preventing costly mistakes and reputation damage. More at https://www.plantsentry.com.

The Horticultural Research Institute, the AmericanHort foundation and the industry’s research and innovation “nerve center,” convened a group of industry thought leaders a year ago to develop and prioritize areas of strategic focus for the next several years. Read more about where we are headed here:  https://www.hriresearch.org/strategic-research-focus.

Finally, it’s an election year (yes, again). AmericanHort is mobilizing to support politicians who have worked to help advance our industry’s priorities in Congress. Let us know if you’d like more information.

Best wishes for success in this new year and decade! Together, we can tackle the challenges and pursue the opportunities that will shape our industry’s future.