“The program has a 337,000 worker cap,” he said. “That’s not enough but it’s all we could get from the Senate and the unions. But, in a crisis, the Secretary of Agriculture can change that number.”

Stenzel said another advantage with the worker program is that USDA, not the Department of Labor, will oversee it. “USDA is for us; Labor is not,” he said.

He encouraged conference participants to “go home and tell your Republican representatives to pass an immigration bill and not just do nothing.  If they pass a bill, we have a shot,” he said.

“Some do not want to see a legalized immigrant workforce,” Stenzel added. “But we have to create a legal way for workers to come to this country and do the work no one here wants to do.”

Despite the challenges, which he concedes are huge, Stenzel remains optimistic about the produce industry. Schools are adding salad bars; fruits and vegetables are now included in the Women, Infants and Children Food and Nutrition Service (WIC) program; and the emphasis on childhood obesity encourages more fresh fruit and vegetable consumption.

The industry has work to do, some of it in education.

“We have to make food safety a positive instead of a negative. Be honest and tell consumers that produce cannot be 100 percent risk-free, but bring the risk into perspective. The chance of getting a food-borne illness is lower than the chance of being struck by lightning.”

He said the grocery store produce manager “needs to become our new hero. Face-to-face marketing makes farmers markets popular,” he said. The produce manager can be the face of the fruit and vegetable industry.

 

Also of interest:

Senate immigration bill offers commonsense reform

Senate immigration reform plan has agriculture backing

FDA’s newly proposed food safety regs