WASHINGTON -- "We're in uncharted waters and we don't see a way out of this," Tom Stenzel, president and chief executive officer of United Fresh Produce Association, said when he took the podium the morning of Oct. 1, referring to the first day of an historic government shutdown.
Despite the political standoff, Stenzel told some 500 attendees in town for the annual Washington Public Policy Conference to fight to be heard during two days of visits with lawmakers on important issues for the fresh produce industry, such as the farm bill, immigration reform, and the Food Safety Modernization Act.
After a late night of trading votes between the House and Senate, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), chairman of the powerful Senate Agriculture Committee, said that regardless of what happens over funding, the nation's food/agriculture industry is a "bright light" in the economy.
Stabenow said the specialty crop industry is in a good position no matter which version of the farm bill passes. The need for a new farm bill was made more urgent when it expired Oct. 1 without a legislative fix on the same day federal workers were furloughed.
"We are not going to pass another extension," Stabenow said. "There's no reason why we can't sit down this month and get it done."
Businesses need a five-year law for stability in making planting and other industry decisions, she said. "We need to get back to governing," Stabenow concluded.
With the budget impasse in full swing, the House has yet to appoint conferees that would meet to work out the differences between the House and Senate versions of the farm bill.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack began his presentation with another perspective, "I've got no budget, no farm bill ... I don't know why I'm here."
The USDA Secretary said the expiration of the 2008 farm bill means USDA won't be able to run trade promotion programs, can't support ranchers and farmers, and won't continue a successful rural development program.
"Folks, have you had enough of this?" he asked. "The time has come to send a strong message" to Congress on key issues, including the budget, the farm bill and immigration reform.
Vilsack called on Congress to pass an immigration bill to counteract businesses that are making plans to scale back production or move jobs south of the border because of the labor shortage.
Businesses need to make long-term decisions and faced with uncertainties, they don't invest, he added.
United Fresh has had to adapt to its own uncertainties due to the government shutdown. Only a handful of the 160 congressional visits were cancelled and the Fresh Festival reception slated for the evening of Oct. 1 in a congressional building had to be moved to the conference hotel.
The only casualty is the government shutdown cancelled the meeting with FDA officials on Wednesday.
Stenzel informed the group of the scheduling changes and invoked the old Chinese proverb, "May you live in interesting times."