Grower Talks: A Conversation with a Congresswoman

GROWER TALKS, JENNIFER ZURKO

Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) is one of the freshman members of Congress elected during the midterms. A young mother of three daughters with an impressive background with the CIA and federal law enforcement, she was one of the main sponsors of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, working closely with AmericanHort’s advocacy team to garner support from other House members.

This past year, Congresswoman Spanberger visited Battlefield Farms and American Color—both in her district—where she sat down with the three Van Hoven brothers who own both operations to take a tour and talk about their challenges. Of course, as with almost every grower in the country, labor issues topped the conversation.  

I was lucky enough to have a quick phone chat with the Congresswoman about her recent grower visits and her thoughts on the bill’s future chances.   

GrowerTalks: You’re from Virginia—did you realize how much ornamental crop growing was going on in your district?

Congresswoman Spanberger: No, I really didn’t. Virginia overall has an incredible agricultural community; it’s a bit of everything. But I didn’t realize we had such a strong niche area of ornamentals in the northern portion of our district.

Before I was elected, I was going through the process of learning about the different types of agriculture in our district. I knew we had greenhouses and flower growers, but it was actually the Dutch ambassador who came to pay me a visit and said that these greenhouse businesses that I have in my district are amazing. At that point, we already had plans for me to tour, but it was really quite impressive to have an ambassador from a foreign country tell me how special the growers in our district are.

GT: You knew going into the tour you were going to see plants and flowers, but what surprised you and what did you learn (besides about the labor issues) when you were there?  

CAS: Thinking through it logically, greenhouses are big operations and they’re going to be somewhat technical based on the types of plants that they’re growing, like with temperature and humidity. I knew it logically, but to actually walk into a space where from wall to wall is just flowers and recognizing that most of them started as tiny little seeds was really impressive. It’s so labor-intensive because they start so small and there’s no room for error. And also seeing some of the technology that they’re using, the way that they water the plants, the way they recycle the water—these are things I knew about, but actually seeing that was very interesting. And the level of precision focus that exists in order for that business to be successful is very impressive to see up close. Again, just the act of walking into a room and, as far as you can see, there are just rows of flowers—it’s really a beautiful sight.

One of the best parts of my job is that in order to best serve my constituents, in order to really understand the challenges businesses face, I get to sometimes have a really good, behind-the-scenes tour and the ability to jump in to see the size and scope. It gives me a whole new respect for all of the different industries across Virginia and certainly where I represent. It’s so much hard work and it brings beauty to the world.

GT: Did your meeting with the Van Hovens and hearing their labor challenge inspire you to co-sponsor the Farm Workforce Modernization Act or was it something that you were already considering?

CAS: This piece of legislation is the result of the hard work of many, many members of Congress that’s been ongoing, before I even got to Congress. My involvement on this is in the larger conversation related to immigration. I think everyone would agree that if we could wave a wand and have comprehensive immigration reform, certainly that would be ideal. But it doesn’t seem like that is going to be possible at this time. So how do you pluck out a piece that is tangible and where you’re positively impacting our agricultural communities because they need workers? Where you’re positively impacting the workers who want to come to this country and work, and they want to do it legally and they want to pay taxes, they want to be able to send money home and they don’t want to live in the shadows. How do you balance those things? Will pulling the H-2A visas out of the larger immigration debate—will that relieve some of the pressure?

Out of that was born this idea that this is a piece of the apple that we could bite off. It’s a good place for us to start and a proven concept where we can find agreement. And that we can balance some of the issues related to security, knowing who’s coming into the country and ensuring that those individuals have the proper documentation, and also ensuring that growers and producers have the workforce that they need.

Many colleagues have worked very hard coming to this agreement. A big focal point of mine was to make sure that when we talked about agriculture, we weren’t talking about “seasonal agriculture,” and to protect greenhouses and their ability to use H-2A visas for year-round workers. Luckily, many of my colleagues were on the same page.

GT: Has it been difficult to get other members to support it? It seems like you’ve been getting new co-sponsors on a regular basis.

CAS: We’re currently at 24 Democrats and 21 Republicans. Jimmy Panetta (D-CA) on the Democratic side has really been leading the charge on much of this. He’s been working on this before I got to Congress and we’ve been really pitching it and talking about it in bipartisan circles. And for particularly anyone who represents an agricultural community, this bill really resonates.

The focus has been to ensure it’s bipartisan and, frankly, to tap down some of the rhetoric that exists surrounding immigration and say it doesn’t need to be a hyper-partisan issue; there are multiple problems we have to solve related to immigration—let’s start by solving this first piece of it or at least addressing this part of the process.

GT: How hopeful are you that it will at least reach the floor of the Senate?

CAS: So I’ve stopped trying to understand what the Senate does or doesn’t do. Based on evidence on what they’re willing to do thus far, I don’t see a lot of hope for immediate progress. However, when you have an immigration bill—a heated issue that everyone seems to care about and oftentimes fight about—that is wholly bipartisan and in that effort you are meeting the needs of employers throughout our agriculture communities, you are addressing the security concerns and you are taking a piece of that larger immigration-related discussion and attempting to solve one slice of the problematic pie, I don’t see how that doesn’t get some traction.

It’s going to be incumbent on farmers and producers across the country to raise this as an issue, to make sure that everyone knows it’s a priority of theirs. And I do think that, because we’ve seen interest on the Republican side of the House, there’s space in the Republican-controlled Senate for a willingness to move it forward. So we shall see. But the level of bipartisan support that exists is a good sign that it may get traction.

I don’t love everything about the bill and I know my colleagues on the other side of the aisle don’t love everything about the bill, but it meets all of the priorities that I have—it ensures businesses have the workers, and it gives dignity and protections to the workers, so it allows for the two sides to have their needs met. And I think that’s exactly what a good bill should do and what this bill does.

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