Import workers or food, U.S. farm bloc says of immigration debate

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The United States will become more reliant than ever on imported food if it does not pass immigration reforms to assure there are enough workers to harvest fruit and vegetable crops and milk cows, a farm coalition told senators on Monday.

The Agriculture Workforce Coalition pointed to estimates that thousands of U.S. farms could go out of business, slashing farm income by as much as $9 billion a year without an adequate labor supply.

Some 60 to 70 percent of the estimated 2 million hired workers on U.S. farms are undocumented laborers. Growers say they are unable to hire enough American workers or guest workers from overseas to perform what is often back-breaking work.

"Production will move offshore," Charles Conner, co-chair of the workforce coalition, said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on border security. "We do have crops going unharvested."

Conner said California has lost about 80,000 acres of land formerly devoted to fruit and vegetable production because of labor shortages. Those goods are now imported.

Fruit and vegetable imports are forecast by the Agriculture Department at $24.6 billion this fiscal year, compared with exports of $14 billion.

Farms with immigrant workers produced about 60 percent of the U.S. milk supply, Conner added.

Under the immigration bill pending in the Senate, illegal farm workers would be granted legal status, a so-called blue card, and could apply after five years for permanent U.S. residency. A new guest worker program would allow visas for up to 112,333 workers a year to work on U.S. farms and ranches.

Alabama Republican Senator Jeff Sessions said the ready supply of undocumented workers drove down wage rates and displaced U.S. workers.

Several other Judiciary Committee members spoke favorably of the bill.

"They (Americans) are not doing the job," said Alyson Eastman, who runs Book-Ends Associates, a company in Orwell, Vermont, that helps farmers hire foreign workers for seasonal work. She said the Labor Department, in charge of the current H-2A guest worker program, is slow to provide workers and sets wages too high. (Reporting by Charles Abbott; Editing by Ros Krasny and Dan Grebler)

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Bob Milligan    
St. Paul  |  April, 23, 2013 at 08:42 AM

Not the complete solution b any means, but an important part of the agricultural labor problem is for farm businesses to become better employers by developing excellent job design, hiring, and performance management processes. Agriculture should work to be a preferred employer.

Pat Joyce    
Pearland Texas  |  April, 23, 2013 at 09:00 AM

We should never have to import food. We have plenty of workers if everyone receing a government handout was required to wor/. Looks like there is plenty of work to go around.

colorado  |  April, 23, 2013 at 12:44 PM

"Cheap Labor is defined as labor that will charge less for thier producion in an industry than the average compensation charged by others in the industry doing equal tasks with equal production. If an industry relies on "cheap labor" there is no incentice to invest in technology.

SD  |  April, 23, 2013 at 01:09 PM

Most of us can only imagine the problems in training laborers to properly pick fruits and vegetables, many of which require delicate handling to prevent ruined produce. Gardeners have somewhat of a clue. People able to pick at a rate growers can afford are not easy to find. We can talk ourselves hoarse promoting 'fair', 'living', or similar terms for wages.....but if the employee cannot pick enough product to pay that wage plus the other costs of growing the product, how can the employer survive in business? Same for any other job, from fast food worker on up and down the work scene. We often hear the employer chastised for failing to pay adequate wages, but never a question as to how productive the worker needs to be to EARN the desired wage.

Indiana  |  April, 23, 2013 at 03:41 PM

I'll never understand how there aren't enough laborers when there is still an unemployment line. I'm sick of the government paying people not to work just because they can't "find a job they like". I'll admit, I'm lucky and I love being a dairy farmer. But we don't employ any Hispanic help. If you pay a fair wage and have good working conditions people will work. I wouldn't mind seeing LESS Hispanics working on dairy farms. This would reduce the over production of milk in this country and solve the low price of milk. I'm tired of everyone acting like the only way to milk a cow these days is with Hispanic labor.

MA  |  April, 24, 2013 at 05:43 AM

Immigration reformers are distorting the issues...we import more food than we export, because of our seasonal climate...Americans are among the richest in the world and are willing to pay for fresh fruit and vegetables that during our off season are coming from south of the border...besides there is a certain mentality that if it is imported, it must be "better". High value wines and cheeses for those who can afford them fit this bill... Dairy does not fall into the seasonal agricultural worker program. It is not a fruit crop that has a narrow harvest window that when completed the workers can go home or move on to another farm before returning is steady day in day work that a farmer has the opportunity to hire workers for on a permanent basis. You can't blame Americans for not wanting to work for farms that will send them packing after the crop is in, unless they are between jobs or are young and not a member of the permanent work force... Undocumented workers have allowed dairy expansion that perpetuates low profit margins that drive our once successful smaller farms from the land...These farms were once contributors to the local economies and the working landscapes of our country. Now with the current cost of production well below the milk price, their farmsteads are deteriorating and they are out of business or very close to it. In many cases only a spouse's off farm income keeps them on the land. This is great testament for working 90 hours a week and still getting paid less than a Mexican!!!!

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