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Co-op leaders lobby for immigration reform, farm bill

Farm co-op leaders from around the country are fanning out across Capitol Hill today to tell legislators that the future of the farm economy and thousands of high-paying jobs for Americans depend on immigration reform that provides a legal agricultural workforce.

Chuck Conner
“Immigration is the issue of the year in the Congress of the United States,” National Council of Farmer Cooperatives President and CEO Chuck Conner told the leaders of the co-ops he represents at a rally at the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel as he sent them off to Capitol Hill.

“For many of you here today, this is the most important thing that Congress can do for you — fix the immigration problem,” he said.

While the farm bill is important, Conner said, if immigration reform does not pass there will be thousands of farmers who will no longer be business to take advantage of its provisions because they will not have the workers they need to plant and harvest fruits and vegetables or work in their dairies.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack also rallied the troops, telling them that they could tell Congress the Senate immigration reform bill “is a pro-agriculture bill, but it is more than that. It is a pro-growth bill.”

The gross national product grows, Vilsack said, when there is “a working immigration system” because legal workers pay taxes that reduce the deficit and contribute to the Social Security program.

Both immigration reform and the farm bill are “critically important to the future of agriculture,” Vilsack said. “If they are not passed this year the chances are pretty doggone good they are not going to get passed next year in an election year.”

Vilsack also told the co-op leaders, many of whom hold the title of president, that current immigration “is the story of your ancestors — they did really, really hard work, probably work somebody else didn’t want to do. And here you are, big shots.”

(For details on Vilsack’s speech, see following story.)

It was also clear that Conner felt he still needed to remind some co-op leaders that foreign workers are vital to their success, so that they would deliver that message to the legislators.

“If you think it doesn’t impact your industry, remember that 70 percent of the hired agricultural workforce is undocumented workers. This is not a regional thing,” Conner said. The chain of agriculture all the way to the top, he added, “depends on this 70 percent.”

Another message, he said, is “We want to be competitive and not outsource our jobs overseas.”

Conner noted that the farm leaders still have their work cut out for them even among House members from California, where although the importance of the farm labor force is well known, there are still many who have not made up their minds how they will vote.

A panel of industry leaders reinforced the message that farmers who can’t get a stable workforce are leaving crops on the ground and holding back on expansion.

Rich Hudgins
Rich Hudgins, president and CEO of the California Canning Peach Association, said peach growers in California are refusing to plant additional orchards until they are sure they will have a labor supply.

“We are seeing an industry begin to dwindle and decrease,” Hudgins said. “We are seeing decisions by growers to move to crops with less labor exposure. What does that do to the infrastructure in California?”

Hudgins told the co-leaders that they could take Congress a simple two sentence message: “Our fruits and vegetables are going to be picked by foreign workers. The only question is whether they will be grown in our country or in a foreign country.”

Robert Smith, senior vice president of Farm Credit East, said that the biggest “farm risk” issue in the Northeast today is the labor supply. With stiffer enforcement of immigration laws and the difficulty of finding workers, Smith said he sees 1,732 farms in the region as “highly vulnerable.”

Those farms, he said, produce $2.4 billion in products per year, about 40 percent of the production in the region. While there are 20,200 full time jobs and 29,900 part-time jobs on the farm, there are 55,000 jobs off the farm, often held by American citizens, that depend on that farm production.

“We see as a lender many successful, progressive operations holding back on investment., shifting from from labor intensive, higher value agriculture to less intensive production,” Smith said.

Jackie Klippenstein

Jackie Klippenstein, vice president of industry and legislative affairs for Dairy Farmers of America, said her industry needs immigration reform because dairies with fewer than 250 cows have been subject to immigration enforcement actions.

Klippenstein told the co-op leaders that when they talk to members of Congress they would have to deal with the fact that, while in California the issue of undocumented workers is openly discussed, it is not talked about in smaller states. She said she has gotten calls from dairy farm owners in 12 states — Iowa, Colorado, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Kansas, Vermont, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana.

In the smaller states, Klippenstein said, “It’s not talked about. It’s an issue of shame.”

News stories, she said, do not go into the details of the labor situation, but only note that the farmer has been found guilty. And those stories, she added, do not mention that when farmers lose their workers, herds suffer and in some cases newborn calves have been lost.

Klippenstein said that when the co-op leaders talk to members of Congress from outside farm districts, they need to stress that immigration reform is needed to guarantee consumers an affordable and domestically produced high-quality food supply that is safe.

The co-op leaders noted that they have heard grumbling that the agreement reached with the United Farm Workers is not totally to their liking. Some farm leaders think the minimum wages of $9 to $12 per hour in the bill are high, one co-op leader noted, but added that on Capitol Hill “you are going to hear people say you can’t get people to work because you are not willing to pay them enough.”

One co-op leader noted that farmers cannot pay unlimited amounts of money for labor because they must accept market prices for their production.

Conner said he believes the biggest concession farm leaders won in the negotiation with the United Farm Workers and the Senate is that is in the Senate bill it is the Agriculture Department rather than the Labor Department which would implement the new guest worker system and be in charge of it.

“I don’t know how to even get in the door of the Department of Labor,” Conner said.

Klippenstein said that some farmers have complained about the health care and housing provisions, but that the negotiations had produced the main goals that farm groups had sought.

“This is a marriage,” she said. “I was enlightened on day one about being a Mrs. We have to work together and protect American agriculture.”