They call this the “silly season” in Washington, D.C.

“Silly season” is the period after Labor Day and ahead of the midterm elections as another Congress flails around ahead of its passage into history.  Curious proposals make their way into introduced legislation that have virtually no chance of ever being able to muster enough support to gain Committee attention, let alone Floor action.  However, they are advanced so a member can go back to their state or district to campaign and tout what they have done on behalf of their constituents.

Of course, there is some real work that needs to occur in the Congress as it wraps, but that sometimes seems to be an afterthought to the silliness.

Prior to the end of September, the Congress will have to agree on a plan to keep the government funded.  Funding for the programs the government has implemented has to be approved on a regular basis and, absent that approval, certain aspects of the government are forced into shutdown.  Several years ago, we witnessed one of these shutdowns, the consequent tumble in stock markets around the world reflecting concern that the U.S. might default on its debt, and even the absurdity of long lines of government employees queueing for distributions from food banks.  

I witnessed these lines here in D.C. close to my office near the FBI building.  A somber sight in our nation’s capital.

A couple of different “cures” to a standoff over the potential closure of the government will be considered.  One would be for the Congress to pass a continuing resolution (CR) to continue to fund the government and its programs.  A CR is a type of appropriations legislation that extends funding at the same level as in the prior fiscal year but terminates on a certain date.  After which, the Congress must pass another CR or, do its work and pass the government appropriations measures, as is their responsibility.

A second “cure” would be an omnibus spending bill.  An omnibus spending bill is a type of bill that packages many of the smaller ordinary appropriations bills the Congress is required to pass into one larger single bill that can be passed with only one vote in each Chamber.  However, as we have seen in the past, these omnibus bills can be “Christmas treed” and adorned with various ornaments extrinsic to the necessary appropriations.  This can lead to omnibus failure due to an inability to garner enough votes or, it can lead to less than desirous outcomes.

The circumstance of this silly season has consequences for agricultural labor.

Following the passage of a CR in this Congress, members will recess to their states and districts to campaign for reelection.  And the election season thankfully ends on a date statutorily set by the Federal Government as “the Tuesday next after the first Monday in the month of November”.  Alternatively, the Congress could choose to pass an omnibus measure ahead of the end of September and assure the government stays funded.

So, what this means for agricultural labor reform, is that our time is exceedingly short to get anything done.

In March 2021, the House of Representatives passed HR 1603 “The Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2021” (FWMA).  While it is not a perfect bill, as no legislation is, it reflects rare bipartisan progress on a vexing issue that must be addressed.

Since then, NCAE and our aggie allies have been working to advance a more employer-friendly version of this legislation in the U.S. Senate.  This Senate effort has been championed by Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Mike Crapo (R-ID) reflecting the bipartisan attention this issue requires as well as the necessity of acquiring 60 votes to pass off the Senate floor.  Their negotiations are not yet complete.

This means that for agricultural employers who have been looking to this Congress to at last provide a solution to the demand for agricultural labor that constantly outraces supply, options are limited. 

The Congress could pass the omnibus spending bill discussed earlier and attempt to attach ag labor reform to that piece of legislation.  Alternatively, after the midterm elections, and during the “lame duck” session of the 117th Congress, bipartisan leadership in both Chambers could join to advance legislation on this critical issue.

It may be the “silly season” in D.C., but for agricultural employers, it’s not funny.

How One NCAE Member Transformed Tragedy into an Opportunity to Give Back

How we respond in the face of adversity says a lot about who we are, both as people and as organizations. However, turning tragedy into an opportunity to help and support others takes a special vision and collaboration.

When John Derrick, the Vineyard Manager of Mercer Ranches in Prosser, Washington, learned he lost his close friend in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, he was devastated.

John’s friend, Richard Guadagno, was one of the heroic passengers of Flight 93. As we know, Flight 93 crashed into the Pennsylvania farmland after passengers thwarted a fourth attack on U.S. soil–one that likely was meant to destroy the United States Capitol.

John knew he needed to do something to honor his friend and the others lost in the 9/11 attacks. “To me,” John explained, “to be able to tell this story of Flight 93 was important.” For John, however, the path forward was not so clear. “I always questioned how I was going to end up helping.”

Rob Mercer, President of Mercer Ranches, previously served as a Captain in the U.S. Marine Corps and reenlisted
to serve in Iraq in 2007-2008. When he returned to Mercer Ranches, John approached him with this desire to honor the memory of his friend. Rob and John discussed opportunities to commemorate those lives lost and the role that Mercer Ranches could play.

Ultimately, the vision to plant a memorial block of their vineyard, Block 93, came to fruition.

With the concept of Block 93 fresh in their minds, John and Rob began to work. Ground preparation of the one-acre lot that would become Block 93 began in the Horse Heaven Hills in 2009. In 2010, they planted 911 vines of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes earmarked for use in a premium wine. Members of Mercer Ranches and the surrounding community volunteered to plant the last 40 vines—representing the 40 passengers and crew lost on Flight 93—by hand.

What began as a personal memorial quickly evolved. “It is a super powerful idea,” John said, “that came out of talking about something that I wanted and needed–and something that Rob wanted and needed as well.”

John credits Rob’s vision and leadership for turning Block 93 into a charity. Rob, he explained, saw Block 93 as a way to turn the tragedy of 9/11 into an opportunity for Mercer Ranches to give back to the community.

All proceeds of Block 93 are donated to charitable organizations such as Children of Fallen Patriots Foundation, Semper Fi Fund, and Friends of Flight 93. Mercer also donates bottles of Block 93 to other organizations, including the Flight 93 Memorial in Stoystown, Pennsylvania, which are then able to leverage the wine to raise money for their own causes.

Since starting Block 93, John explained, “we have donated over a quarter of a million dollars.”

Beyond the direct impact Block 93 makes as a charity, it also provides Mercer Ranches an opportunity to build bridges with the surrounding community. As a large farm, and particularly one that is associated with a winery, there are a lot of tours involved. “Getting that chance to get one-on-one time [with visitors] is powerful,” he added.

Visitors are often unaware of the path food takes to get to the plate, and may even have negative preconceptions about agriculture. John explained that Block 93 gives him the opportunity to “share and say I am just as human as you are and we really [have] quite a bit in common…[E]veryone knows where they were [on 9/11], what they were doing, and how it impacted them—directly or indirectly.”

As a result, he added, visitors have told him “they appreciate what we are doing and that we are telling the story.”

This bridge works both ways, he added. “I have gotten to hear their stories as well.”

Block 93 is a crown jewel for Mercer Ranches and exemplifies the good that the agricultural community can do. For other agricultural employers looking for their own charitable opportunity, John has some advice.

“I think the need is out there for everyone to get more involved with the community,” he explained. “No matter your idea or how you connect, there is somebody that wants to connect with you as well and has that same need. Take your ideas and run with them—they will find traction.”

Telling one’s story can have a tremendous impact on changing minds about what agriculture is. As John said, “we know what we know—getting to share allows us to find commonality.”

NCAE Spotlight Mercer Ranches


My dad is the youngest of ten children. He had five sisters and four brothers. And, to hear my aunts talk about it, while they were still with us, not only was he the baby of the family, but he was babied as well. At least that’s what they said. My dad’s not so sure.

Like many families and kids of the Great Depression they were poor. So were their neighbors. They didn’t have much but, they did have one another.

My grandfather did a lot of different things to try and keep his family having something. Sometimes he was a sharecropper, sometimes he was a horse trader, at the end of his life he was the caretaker at the local cemetery. He always took care not to nick the headstones of the departed with the mower.

I don’t remember my grandfather. He passed away when I was five weeks old. But somehow, though he never had much of anything, he passed along a legacy to my dad that is such a part of the very fabric of people in agriculture, that it almost goes without saying. My grandfather hoped, through his toil, that he would leave his ten children in a little better spot than he had been in when he arrived. Kind of aspirational if nothing else.

Recently, I headed back home to spend some time with my dad and our family. His nieces and nephews wanted to have a get together of sorts with my dad, the lone survivor of the ten. My cousins organized it and it was a small group, but the attendees ranged in age from almost ninety to less than one. Quite a spread that.

After lunch, reminiscing and sharing a good deal of fellowship, we went out to the cemetery to pay our respects to those who had come before. One of my third cousins laid flowers atop the headstones in the same cemetery my grandfather had tended.

When we came to the grave of my grandmother and grandfather, I said a prayer. I thanked them for having given my dad life and, consequently, life to all who were visiting that day.

One thing really struck me as I stood there looking down at the headstone my grandparents shared. As I looked at the dates carved in the gray granite, I realized my grandfather had been born only 31 years after the end of the Civil War. He had surely known veterans of that conflict as he was growing up. Isn’t that something?

And, when I thought of that, it made me think of the importance of legacy. And it made me think of the speech our President had delivered at Gettysburg in the middle of that war. It also made me reflect on the great schism that existed among us Americans at that time in our history and ponder the divisions that exist within our nation today. Kind of aspirational if nothing else.

Gettysburg had been a bloody battle. Tens of thousands had been killed or wounded. It was horrific as all war is. But Lincoln knew that after the war, Americans had to come together again as a people. And he pointed that out.

Everyone recalls the fourscore part, but the next sentence lays out the challenge for us.

“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.”

And, at the end, he lays out the legacy.

“…that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Lincoln’s speech that day was special. It is a part of his legacy, and it is only ten sentences long. Lincoln shared in those few words what our nation strives to be and, in my opinion, what our nation can and should be. We don’t need a war to get there.

Every day on every farm and ranch in America, the people who make our country go are building a legacy. It is a legacy to be passed along to the next generation. It is a legacy of hard work, commitment, of love of family and love of country too. It is a legacy of leaving behind a little more than you had when you arrived. Kind of aspirational if nothing else.

I wonder if my grandfather knew.

It is always important to bring focus to achieving a penultimate goal.

This mantra applies to many things in our lives. It applies to assuring we have properly irrigated and nurtured our crops prior to their harvest and kept the pests away. It applies to our physical training for a big race or diligent study for an important test. It applies to the spiritual and familial things we engage in which nourish our very soul.

Believe it or not, it also applies in the political world (as opposed to the real one) as we strive to pass critical legislation. Focus is important to achieving that penultimate goal.

Farmers and ranchers have been toiling for decades in Washington, DC, to pass important legislation securing a reliable workforce. They have left their land and their families to make the jaunt to the nation’s Capital to press their case for agricultural labor reform. They have watched as the challenges to sustaining their businesses with few of our neighbors willing to come out to the farm or ranch and help do the hard work of securing our nation. These hearty individuals have been making that jaunt for decades.

And, for decades, distractions from focus have led to an inability for agriculture to get to the goal of achieving a Presidential signature on a bill that will accomplish this needed reform. Agriculture must have that focus now.

The House of Representatives earlier this year once again passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act. The bill was one of those too rare occasions in Washington, DC, where leadership emerges from both sides of the political spectrum to advance something for the good of our nation. The President indicated his support for agricultural labor reform in his recent address to Congress.

So right now, politically, there is an important component missing to achieving the goal of reform.

NCAE serves on the Steering Committee of the Agricultural Workforce Coalition (AWC). The AWC is working right now to resolve that missing political piece necessary to realize that penultimate goal. We have started conversations with the United States Senate to encourage a similar bipartisan effort to get us to the finish line. And we seem to be making progress, but we must hurry, as the clock is already ticking down to another election cycle.

A Senate bill, just like the legislation that emerged from the House, will be a compromise. NCAE is working collaboratively to see if we can achieve a bill that strongly considers the needs of agricultural employers. Of course, that is who we work for and we are proud of that responsibility.

A Senate bill must address reform measures for our existing workforce, but at the same time has to prepare us for a future flow of workers to do farm tasks that too few Americans are willing to do.

Like many businesspeople, I am always fascinated with numbers. You probably are too so I will share a few to add some context to this discussion.

The last US Census of Agriculture that was performed by the USDA was for 2017. The next one will be done in 2022. That Census indicated that, for 2017, there were 2.4 million hired agricultural workers in the US.

At the present time, annually, just north of 200,000 visas are issued for Temporary Ag Workers to come into the US as H-2A workers. It is important they do because, although agricultural jobs pay well (on average more than twice the federal minimum wage according to USDA), fewer and fewer domestic workers desire to come out to the farm or ranch to lend a hand.

The 2015-2016 National Ag Worker Survey (NAWS) which is done by the Department of Labor adds more context. The next Survey for 2017-2018 should be published any day. The NAWS points out that many domestic workers are quickly aging out of agriculture. The Survey also notes that of the existing domestic agricultural workforce, about half of the workers are absent proper authorization.

So, if we do the arithmetic, 2.4 million hired ag workers less 200,000 Temporary H-2A ag workers leaves a population of approximately 2.2 million domestic workers. And about half of those workers, or maybe 1.1 million, may be unauthorized. And all of the domestic ag workers, authorized and otherwise, are trending older.

Not a bright future if you are a farm or ranch family who needs workers.

Consequently, the Senate bill that will emerge from our effort must contain elements that assure the present workforce is maintained. Some existing ag workers will need a path to attain legal status. At the same time, a Senate bill must ensure that in the future, if a farm or ranch family needs someone to pitch in, they will be able to find a good employee ready, willing, and able to perform. That reformed future flow program must not be so unwieldy that it crushes the legacy family operations it is supposed to help.

NCAE is focused on achieving our goal. I hope you will help us bring focus to the politicians.

This was a long, cold COVID winter.

From late January until middle of March, the temperature rarely peeked above 40 degrees. The sun rarely broke through an overcast sky and a steady wind blew from the Northwest in the DC area.  My bicycle, leaning against the wall, languished from neglect.

But finally, a little bit of Spring’s promise poked its head out from the clouds and the wind simmered down too.  The sunshine warmed my spirit as it warmed the surroundings.

Although it was only 42 degrees, the forecast said 45 was on the way!  I pulled on winter gear, added air to my tires, filled my water bottle and cinched my helmet tight for my usual 20-mile ride.  At last!

I tore up the streets and charged the Virginia hills filling my lungs with air that now did not burn my lungs with cold.  I dodged other cyclists moving too slowly for my pace and cautiously avoided pedestrians on the path who were stretching their winter legs in glorious sunshine.  A cardinal flitted past annoying a blue jay who leapt in pursuit and I even saw a racoon rustling through the leaves still awake from its nightly foraging.

I turned northwest past the airport and rode along the Potomac headed for home.  It had been a terrific, quick ride and I felt melancholy to have it end so soon.

As I approached the Memorial Bridge underpass, I saw another cyclist emerge from it headed my way.  The path right there is a little treacherous as tree roots have pushed up the asphalt creating a hazard if you have too much speed.  The other rider seemed unaware.

Sure enough, I saw him hit those big bumps, lose control and tumble onto the asphalt, his momentum and the bike depositing him hard to the side of the path.

I hit my brakes and slowed, unclipping from my pedals.  I hollered asking the other rider if he was okay, concerned because he was not moving.

I laid my bicycle down and ran over to the other cyclist, now somewhat relieved because he had rolled himself to his side. I repeated my query as to whether he was all right as I picked up his bike and he pulled himself to his feet, bleeding from scrapes to his legs, elbow, and forearm.

He finally said, “Yeah, I’ll be okay.  What did I hit?”

I pointed out the bumps on the path partially obscured in the shade from the trees, just discernible in the sunlight. The other rider nodded, looked at me standing there still holding his bike and kind of sizing me up.

He said, “You’re not from around here, are you?”

I told him I lived just a couple of miles from there.  The other rider said thank you and thanks for stopping.  I asked if he was going to be all right and when he said yes, I hopped on my bike and continued toward home.

Over the last few miles, I thought about that incident and pondered why the other rider had thought I might not have been from around there.  Then, it struck me.

Having been raised in farm and ranch country, it is just in our nature to always stop and help someone in a tough situation.  Whether it might be someone who has had their car skid off the road in a snowstorm and you lend a hand getting them out of a drift or pitching in if someone must head to town to care for a sick relative but still needs to have irrigation water set.  Helping one another is just something you do.  Neighbors help neighbors.

In fact, Paul Harvey, the radio broadcaster from my youth talked of this rural American ethos in the iconic poem he delivered at the FFA Convention in Kansas City in 1978.  Where Harvey said, in part, “God had to have somebody willing to ride the ruts at double speed to get the hay in ahead of the rain clouds and yet stop in mid-field and race to help when he sees the first smoke from a neighbor’s place. So, God made a farmer.”

And I am glad that he did.  Neighbors help neighbors.

Pass it along.


Seriously, what did they expect would happen?

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently analyzed the economic impact of the Raise the Wage Act of 2021 and found, to the surprise of no one in agriculture or any economist for that matter, that raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour would result in the loss of 1.4 million American jobs.

So-called Progressives were stunned!  How could it be that the holy grail was anything else?

Markets, elegantly and effectively, allocate resources to their highest and best use within any economy.  Government interference in markets impedes market efficiency and should be avoided.  This is something widely understood by the people with “skin in the game” who employ agricultural workers.

Why do some policymakers have such difficulty understanding this?  Perhaps it is because they have spent their working years signing the back of a paycheck as opposed to an agricultural employer who signs the front.

I guess the notion sounds appealing.  Free money for doing the same work!  Hip, hip hooray!

Do not worry about the level of effort or initiative employed by the worker, just ask the government to impose a mandate and, like a flourishing twirl from a magician’s wand, abracadabra, all ills are cured!

Except, it does not work that way, regardless of the sleight of hand or diversion of attention employed by the magician.  Even when the magician is disguised as the government.

America’s farmers and ranchers are aware of this reality.  They have watched year after year after year as their input costs have risen, and the price they receive for their crop has diminished or stayed flat, their competitors have flourished.  Economics is not a magic trick.

Here is what I mean.

The United States has seen a flight of the agricultural production that feeds our nation to foreign competition.  As input costs, including labor, have reached unsustainable levels, the production and the infrastructure that supports it have sought a more friendly climate.  Members of the media are shocked when I relate to them in interviews, that today over half of the fresh fruit and a third of the fresh vegetables consumed in the U.S. are produced outside our borders.

This is not unlike what the U.S. experienced with the flight of manufacturing jobs to venues without our country.  As regulation and input costs made building automobiles in the United States profitless, production left.  Not only that, but quickly the supporting automotive parts manufacturing moved out as well.

Confused government policy, if not checked, is likely to do the same with agricultural production too.

In jobs where it becomes more cost effective to employ machines instead of people, the people lose their jobs.  Think about the grocery store or the gas station as examples of this.

The grocery stores where I shop have far more self-service kiosks for checkout than they have people checking out customers.  And often, the jobs bagging groceries are gone from the full-service aisles as well.

It is also a rarity these days to drive into a gas station and see someone hustling as I did in high school to pump the customer’s gas, wash their windows, check the oil and tire pressure, collect the payment and see the customer on their way.  Today, most gas is pumped self-service and the jobs that full-service supported are gone.

It would be a tragedy for the same to occur to the American farmer and rancher because of the tragedy that would be consequent to the American consumer and to America’s national security.

What did they expect would happen?