AFBF policy backs Oregon blueberry growers
By Eric Mortenson
SAN ANTONIO – Oregon blueberry growers who ran afoul of U.S. Department of Labor investigators in 2012 won at least a symbolic victory Tuesday when delegates to the American Farm Bureau Federation convention called for a repeal of the department’s authority to place “hot goods” orders on perishable crops.
The addition to the Farm Bureau’s policy book stems from the Oregon case in which growers had to pay fines totalling about $220,000 and admit wrongdoing before investigators would release blueberries seized under the “hot goods” provision of federal labor law.
The labor department alleged the growers cheated workers out of wages. The growers denied it, but with their berries at risk of spoiling had little choice but to sign consent orders and pay the fines. They’ve since filed a lawsuit alleging the government’s action was coercive and denied them due process.
The policy book language approved by delegates says penalties should be based only on violations observed and proved and not made subjectively or statistically. In the Oregon case, the labor department used a picking rate formula to come up with the number of unidentified workers it said were owed wages. The growers’ attorney and the Oregon Farm Bureau said the “ghost workers” may not exist.
“Hot goods” orders originated with 20th century garment industry investigations and were used to force compliance by seizing goods. Farm leaders believe such tactics are not suited to agriculture. Language added to the bureau’s policy book says, “We call for the repeal of DOL’s authority to seek and secure hot goods orders on perishable commodities.”
“There’s no precedent for what they did or how they did it,” said Dave Dillon, executive vice president of the Oregon Farm Bureau. He said the “policy blessing” at the national level “elevates awareness to watch out for this tactic.”
“From a policy perspective, it demonstrates that the nation’s farmers and ranchers support our view on this,” Dillon said.
The national Farm Bureau’s policy adoption process Tuesday touched on several other issues of interest in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and northern California. The federation said it supports:
• The use of small unmanned aircraft, or drones, for commercial agricultural, forestry and other natural resource purposes.
• Removing industrial hemp’s classification as a controlled substance and reducing marijuana’s classification for the purposes of research.
• Renewal of the Columbia River Treaty with Canada in a way that maintains its original focus on flood control and power generation.
• Research to combat the Brown Marmorated Stinkbug and Spotted Wing Drosophila fruit fly, both capable of heavy crop damage.
Farm Bureau members said they oppose a mandated 30 minute break after eight hours for livestock haulers, including those hauling honeybees. They also oppose a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service ban on planting GMO crops on public land.
In other business Tuesday, Bob Stallman of Texas was unanimously elected to an eighth two-year term as federation president. Oregon’s Barry Bushue, a berry and flower basket producer east of Portland, was unanimously elected to his fourth two-year term as vice president. He’s also president of the Oregon Farm Bureau.