By JOHN O'CONNELL
During last year's Potato D.C. Fly-in, National Potato Council spokesman Mark Szymanski believes his organization won over many of the 93 members of Congress who signed a letter demanding that fresh potatoes be added to the Women, Infants and Children Program.
Potatoes remain the only vegetable excluded from the federal nutrition program, which supports low-income women and children who are nutritionally at risk.
During the upcoming Fly-in, scheduled for Feb. 25-28, growers will continue lobbying for changes to WIC, as no final rule has yet been published, Szymanski said. He said other key NPC priorities when growers lobby their lawmakers will be restoring specialty crop research funding in the federal farm bill and overhauling the nation's complicated H-2A program, which brings in non-immigrant foreign workers to allay domestic worker shortages.
When Congress extended the farm bill, Szymanski said it approved no mandatory funding for specialty crop research, which had been especially useful in addressing potato diseases. He believes it's also up to growers to convince Congress that the H-2A program is "irrevocably broken and in need of a complete overhaul," and the time to do it is now, in conjunction with immigration reform.
"We've talked about bringing in a couple of guest workers here to work, but all we hear about is the paperwork it takes to get them here," said Randy Hardy, an Oakley, Idaho, grower who will make the trip and is NPC's Trade Affairs Committee vice president.
More than 130 growers from 23 states are scheduled to attend the Fly-in, which will convene from the Lowes Madison Hotel. Another 20 younger growers will participate through a separate leadership program in Washington, D.C. The NPC has hosted the annual Fly-in for more than two decades.
"This is the reason why NPC exists is to find opportunities for members of Congress to listen to growers and hear how policies will impact their farms," Szymanski said.
In addition to meeting with congressmen and their staff, the growers are scheduled to discuss concerns with the (Environmental Protection Agency) on issues such as spray drift regulations.
"They don't see the EPA as understanding where growers are coming from," Szymanski said.
Randy Mullen, a Pasco, Wash., grower and president of NPC, has been on at least 10 previous Fly-Ins. He likes the chance to help lawmakers put faces to agricultural issues.
"They hear from lobbyists day in and day out, and when we can go back and tell our personal stories and something they can relate to, I think it helps us as an industry," Mullen said.
One of Mullen's top priorities will be encouraging USDA trade officials who will meet with the growers to continue pushing for Mexico to open fresh potato access beyond the current 26-kilometer boundary.
"I think the Mexico access is the biggest issue we're dealing with this year," Mullen said.
Hardy also considers improved access into Mexico to be a top priority.