Nearly 70 members of Congress and their staffs heard from floral professionals in Washington D.C. on March 29 about the industry’s need for agricultural labor reform, access to duty-free product, and more funds for cutting-edge floriculture research.
Growers, wholesalers, retail florists and others with ties to the industry met virtually and in person with legislators and their staffs during the Society of American Florists’ 42nd annual Congressional Action Days.
“By coming together and having conversation, we make a difference,” SAF President Michelle Castellano Keeler, AAF, said at the Kick-Off Breakfast on Monday. “Legislators don’t know the flower industry. Every office we visit amplifies the industry’s voice on the Hill.”
The floral industry took to the Hill on Tuesday and specifically asked members of Congress to reauthorize the Generalized System of Preferences, which removes tariffs from certain imports — including roses; reform the H-2A visa program to make it more workable, providing a reliable, legal source of labor; and allocate an additional $2 million to the Floriculture and Nursery Research Initiative to study the use of drones in agriculture.
Floral professionals bolstered their messages to lawmakers by pointing out that other industries also stand to benefit from their requests.
The messages hit home with representatives and their aides, including New Jersey Senator Cory Booker’s office, which has been particularly interested in issues related to agriculture since Booker joined the Senate Agriculture Committee last year.
During a meeting with Booker’s office, SAF Chairperson Chris Drummond, AAF, PFCI, of Penny’s by Plaza Flowers in Philadelphia, explained that each of the issues he presented has a trickle-down effect in the floral industry.
“As a retailer, I want to get the best products,” Drummond told a legislative aide. “I want the best assortments for my customers, grown in sustainable ways. When we talk about ag labor issues, we are on the receiving side. If farms are successful, we are successful.”
Drummond explained how flower growers are hurt when they don’t have the workforce to harvest their crops, and how that labor shortage ultimately affects florists and consumers. He explained that the H-2A program, which allows foreign nationals to fill temporary farm jobs, is so narrow in its specifications and expensive that it doesn’t help flower growers.
He also urged Booker’s office to take action on reauthorizing the GSP, which would remove a 6.8 percent tariff on Ecuadorian roses. And, when Drummond requested an additional $2 million for the Floriculture Nursery Research Initiative (FNRI), he touted recent “smart-spray” research stemming from FNRI that helped not just the floral industry, but other agriculture sectors.
“Our industry has some of the best return of investment for government dollars,” Drummond told Booker’s staff, adding that the floral and nursery industries have a dynamic partnership with academia and the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service to carry out research. An increase of $2 million to FNRI could be used to research how drones can be used for ariel scouting and spraying on specialty crops.
“It might seem like a very large increase, but it is because of the new technology on the horizon,” Drummond told Booker’s staff.
Those issues were carried to congressional offices over and over Tuesday, giving the industry a unified voice. Attendees were first coached on how to talk about the issues with legislators — including role-playing exercises — by SAF lobbyists Joe Bischoff and Allie Locke.
Several attendees, including first-timer Sherry Grimes-Jenkins of EMY Custom Flowers in Mahopac, New York, recorded the role-playing sessions and referred to the videos the morning of congressional appointments to help prepare.
“Although I was very nervous, the role playing helped me out a lot,” Grimes-Jenkins says.
During a grassroots breakfast presentation, attendees also heard from Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Michigan), who as a young man worked at a Flint, Michigan floral shop. Kildee thanked the participants for making the time to be in the nation’s capital, saying legislators have been out of touch with their constituents because of the pandemic.
“The only way [this] process works is by doing what you are doing here now,” he told the audience. “Have fun. Enjoy it. What you are doing is fundamental to the democratic society.”
The legislative appointments are akin to “checking in with the boss,” he said. “We work with and for you. Having constituents here helps members of Congress.”
Kildee also asked attendees for a personal favor.
“Encourage the people you talk with to find a path back to more of the old ways,” he said, referring to a time when lawmakers worked across party lines to advance legislation. “It used to be that if we had a disagreement on one issue, we didn’t let that interfere on other policies.”
The stagnation of movement on addressing certain issues can be discouraging, some CAD attendees acknowledged. But many first-time attendees expressed surprise at how eager lawmakers and their staff were to learn more about the floral industry, and as David Boulton, AAF, PFCI, of Flowers By George in Arlington, Washington pointed out, attendees left D.C. with new connections.
“It’s about building relationships,” he says.
To see more pictures from SAF’s Congressional Action Days, click here.
Amanda Jedlinsky is the managing editor for SAF Now.