Farmers complain ag labor being excluded from house proposal

Sep 21, 2012
by WLJ

Industries such as farming are being left out of legislation to recruit more foreign-born workers because farm workers rely more on a strong back, complained advocates for ag labor reform Wednesday.

House members were expected to vote last Thursday on a bill that would expand green cards for people with higher degrees in science, technology, engineering and math, hence the “STEM Act.” Farm labor obviously doesn’t make that cut, but farmers who rely on harvest and processing workers say they are losing crops, which is wasting food and costing consumers more in grocery stores.

Neither chamber of Congress has voted on a bill to expand or change labor immigration since a failed bill in 2007. Right now, however, unless lawmakers can push an amendment to the STEM Act, agriculture will likely be left out of this immigration debate.

Craig J. Regelbrugge, cochair of the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform, said in a press call last Wednesday that while Congress is pushing legislation to bring in high-tech workers, options are needed to find manual labor willing to work in agriculture as well.

Regelbrugge said Republicans in Congress aren’t sticking to their promise to help small businesses, while the Obama administration is aggressively hitting small businesses with labor audits. “In the end, both sides need to put their politics aside and work together to help us attain a 21st century solution for the farming industry.”

Larry Wooten, president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau, criticized the state-by-state regulatory approach now happening. He said immigration should remain under federal control. North Carolina is the largest user of the H-2A program, but problems remain with its ability to fill the labor void.

Nationally, roughly 1 million people work directly just on crop farms and nurseries. At least half those workers are in the country illegally. The H-2A program only brings in about 68,000 people each year. Overall agriculture, meat packers, food processing and affiliated industries employ roughly 16 million people.

Farmers in North Carolina are starting to shift away from labor-intensive crops to commodities that are more mechanized, Wooten said.

Ralph Broetje, president of Broetje Orchards in Washington state, said he has about 6,000 acres, ships about 6.5 million boxes of apples a year, and employs about 1,200 people. Another 800 to 1,000 workers are needed to harvest. This year he is running short because of lack of workers.

“We’ve been about 500 people short in our harvest crews,” Broetje said, despite a push to recruit people. Broetje added, “Enforcement-only has just devastated the skilled labor source that we have depended on for the last 20 to 30 years.”

Broetje said many new employees are unwilling to stick with the labor involved to pick an orchard. Other growers, such as asparagus producers, left more of the crop in the field this year because they could not get workers, Broetje said.

Maureen Torrey, vice president of marketing for Torrey Farms Inc., New York, a business on its 12th generation of family operators, said farmers in the region have been offering health and retirement benefits in dairy while crop producers are offering places to live. A drive to make New York the capital of yogurt production has set up a path to add as many as 500,000 dairy cattle in the state, but Torrey questions how producers can expand. There is no H-2A program for dairy producers.

“We need to have our Congress in Washington develop a commonsense program for sourcing farm employees or we will completely see a different face of agriculture here in western New York,” Torrey said.

Nan Stockholm Walden, vice president and counsel for Farmers Investment Co., a pecan grower in Arizona, said their operation has about 260 employees and will hire about 50-60 seasonal employees for harvest in November. H-2A doesn’t deliver timely workers for harvest, she said.

The tough state law to root out illegal immigrants has made it a difficult environment to farm in Arizona, she said.

“This has led to many people leaving our state, going to other states where there are not these ambiguous clouds and legal sanctions hanging over both employers’ and employees’ heads,” Walden said. — Chris Clayton, DTN