On Tuesday, April 25, Tom Demaline, president of Willoway Nurseries in Avon, Ohio, and incoming Chairman of the Board of AmericanHort, participated in a “farmers roundtable” in the White House’s West Wing, meeting with President Donald Trump, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, and other government executives and representatives of the agriculture industry.
The roundtable came the same day Trump issued his executive order titled, “Promoting Agriculture and Rural Prosperity in America,” and the day after the United States Senate confirmed his nomination of Perdue, who served as the governor of Georgia from 2003 to 2011.
Demaline discussed the roundtable discussion with Greenhouse Management magazine.
Greenhouse Management: Have you ever met a president before?
Tom Demaline: No, not in a personal sit-down meeting.
GM: What was that like?
TD: It was an interesting event. Just having an opportunity to represent the nursery-greenhouse industry in that type of venue was an honor. President Trump was very engaged in the conversations, listened to what our needs were, and with Secretary Perdue in the room, acknowledged what areas we had issues with, and wants to move forward and fix as many problems that we can.
GM: What are some of those issues?
TD: The roundtable group met on Monday night in a pre-meeting. I hadn’t met any of these people before – I don’t think hardly anybody knew anybody in the room. It was about an hour-long meeting, and talking through with the priorities of the group, the No. 1 priority for everybody there was labor. We all agreed that that was our lead message that we needed to get out to the president, and that we needed to do something about fixing the labor problem for the green industry – for agriculture in general, I should say.
GM: What do you think specifically should be done with that, or are you open to suggestions?
TD: It’s a complicated solution and probably a long-term process. Willoway Nurseries has been in the H-2A guest worker program for 18 years now. We’ve dealt with the issues that come along with that program. There’s a lot of bureaucratic red tape and a lot of issues with DOL [United States Department of Labor] that – you have to get approval through DOL and the USCIS [United States Citizenship and Immigration Service] and all the subjective things for processing, which makes it difficult to get your people here on time. It’s also a costly program to use because of the wage rate you have to pay. Our starting wage rate – it’s called the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR) – is $13 an hour in Ohio. So, our lowest price labor person starts at $13 an hour. We have to provide transportation, housing and so forth. So, it has a lot of dollars tied up in applications and recruiting. That adds about another dollar an hour just in overhead. So, it’s not a source of cheap labor, but it’s a source of legal labor, and we’ve chosen to go down that route for the last 18 years, just knowing that we want to have a legal labor supply.
Mr. Trump heard what we had to say about the bureaucracy and the issues with the program and is willing to look into it and see if we can smooth out some of the issues. The program works in concept, but it doesn’t work in practicality.
GM: Did you talk with Sonny Perdue at all?
TD: He was in our roundtable meeting, and then we had a meeting with him after the president left – sort of a recap meeting. He’s very well aware of our issues, and I think he’s a great choice for Secretary of Ag, and understands what ag needs to do to be successful and is willing to go out there and fix it with a common-sense approach. So, it’s refreshing to have somebody like him in the driver’s seat.
Mr. Trump – they kept joking back and forth – kidding back and forth – [that Perdue] has only been in the job for about six hours, and he already had a list about a mile long of all the things out of that meeting that Mr. Trump asked him to work on getting fixed.
GM: Who else was there?
TD: There were 14 people at the table from the industry. I was the only nursery-greenhouse person there. I don’t think really too many people knew anybody else at the table. There was a secretary of ag from North Carolina and Iowa. They knew each other, so they represented the industry in general. The rest of the room was made up of somebody from timber, a couple cattle people, a vegetable person, a dairy person from New York, there were a couple other dairy people in there, cattle and cow calf operations and pig operations and so forth. So, it was a real wide group of agricultural interests represented from all over the country. There was a guy there from California who grows fresh market strawberries and some other vegetables out there. They’re all medium-to-large operations that employ a lot of people and trying to make a living.
GM: Is there anything else you would like our readers to know about your experience visiting the White House, or what else needs to be done in the industry from a regulation standpoint?
TD: We had four areas of focus in our pre-meeting that we wanted to take to the White House. Like I said, labor was No. 1. There’s no one priority over the other. The second one was trade and how to get more American farm products – now, this is more for general ag than it is for the nursery industry because we don’t ship out of the country – but for the beef, pork and poultry people and the corn and beans, they need a world market to participate in to get our products – we grow more than we consume, so we need to get it out there and be positive for trade. So, we talked about that.
The next one was regulatory issues – reducing the regulatory things that are just milking businesses. The cost of operation – a lot of the regulatory things aren’t directly regulated to us as an industry, but they’re built into the cost of just doing business. Just to get new pesticides registered, now they’ve got to go through way more jumps and way more hurdles and so forth to get that done. We’ve got the Obamacare thing to deal with – that’s an extra cost and burden on business. There’s more and more taxes here, and EPA things to worry about. So, there’s a lot of hidden costs. The Dodd-Frank thing – it costs anybody that borrows money about 30 basis points – 0.3 percent – just in additional cost to get a loan processed and for banks to do business. So, it costs everybody to do more business, and in the end, it just eats profit up to where the margins are pretty thin.
The fourth area was rural infrastructure and the ability to get broadband and cellular service to rural areas of America and improve our roads and invest back in infrastructure and the importance of that. We talked even about the future of farming and how to get people involved back in horticulture or agriculture to make it a viable industry, because the average farmer is 60 years old and the average nurseryman is about 60 years old, and we need to get more people back into the industry.
GM: Is there anything else that you want to add?
TD: To summarize it, I think this opportunity for us to speak with the President – he understands our needs, and I think the door is open for us to move forward. It’s going to be a steep hill to climb but not an impossible climb to gain back some of the things we lost over the last eight years. I think with Secretary Perdue in place, he understands agriculture and wants to take a common-sense approach to making things better for the American farmer, and he’s been empowered by the President to get this stuff fixed. So, I think that’s a positive thing also.
When we met with Secretary Perdue at the recap, he made it clear that some things can get done in rural and they can get them fixed. Other things are going to have to go through the legislative process. This is where we really need to engage the industry in general, whether it’s agriculture or the horticultural side – we all need to work together on the legislative process if immigration reform or something comes up. We all depend on it, and we all need to rally the troops and contact our congressmen to help get it fixed because ag has such a small voice in the population of the country now. If we all don’t speak up, we’re not going to be heard. So, it’s important that we band together and work together to come up with a solution that’s good for all of ag.
Group photo courtesy of the United States Department of Agriculture
Demaline photo courtesy of AmericanHort