SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — If America doesn’t import farmworkers, it will have to import the food people need, New York’s Farm Bureau president says.
Immigration reform is the country’s most pressing agriculture-related issue this year, Dean Norton said during a Feb. 25 conference call with reporters, outlining important national policy issues.
New York’s diverse farming industry is heavily dependent on foreign help, from seasonal fruit pickers to full-time dairy labor.
“Immigration is important to all of them,” Norton said. “We need both houses of Congress to come together. People want fresh, locally grown food these days. It’s harder to fill that demand unless we have immigration reform.”
Last year, the Senate passed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act — S. 744 — introduced by U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. It has failed to gain passage in the House.
“We see what happens every year as we get farther and farther away from a sustainable workforce,” Norton said. “We’re leaving fruit on the trees and crops in the ground. There’s billions of dollars at play here.
“We’re looking for a stable workforce on our farms,” he said. “Without immigration reform, that may suffer.”
Farm Bureau supports legislation that would allow existing immigrant labor to stay in the U.S. and make it easier for new foreign workers to do the jobs that many Americans simply don’t want.
“They’re willing to put in long hard hours,” said David Wood, owner of Eildon Tweed Farm in Charlton, N.Y. “It’s a very rigorous job. It’s hard work. They’re a big asset to dairy farms, there’s no doubt. They aren’t taking away jobs that Americans want.”
Norton said good immigration policy would allow farm laborers to become residents, but not citizens.
Most immigrants from places such as Mexico and Guatemala don’t want to become U.S. citizens, Wood said.
“They want to make enough money to do better and then go home to their families again,” he said. “You can work just a couple of years here and build a new house in Mexico. The cost of living in those places is much different than it is here. The biggest issue is to get a good, simple guest worker program.”
The H-2A guest worker program allows agricultural employers to hire workers from other countries on temporary work permits for agricultural jobs that last 10 months or less.
That’s how Nate Darrow, owner of Saratoga Apple in Schuylerville, N.Y., hires people for his fruit farm.
“We have a very short harvest window,” he said. “We need experienced professional people, preferably ones that have been here before.”
The H-2A program works, but needs streamlining, he said.
“It’s a very onerous process,” Darrow said. “I have to jump through a lot of hoops to make it happen.”
The program also faces threats politically from groups opposed to the hiring of foreign farm labor.
Farm Bureau wants to make sure the H-2A program is kept intact on a long-term basis.
Norton and Kelly Young, New York Farm Bureau’s senior associate director of national affairs, outlined other important policy issues including food safety, expanded rural broadband and tax credits for food donations.
Young said food safety regulations should be based on sound science and have an actual public benefit. For example, one proposed regulation would require water used for irrigation to meet the same health standards as swimming pool water, which she said is unrealistic and unnecessary.
Norton said expanded broadband is a key component of rural economic development. But many parts of upstate New York, including his own in western New York, don’t have such service, he said.
“Dial-up Internet is just not efficient for us anymore,” he said. “We need Internet for the reporting process and to improve marketing capabilities.”
Rural broadband is included in the recently-passed Farm Bill.
“It doesn’t always get funded,” Young said. “That is what we’re going to keep our eye on.”
With regard to food donations, Farm Bureau says tax credits should be given to farmers who give produce to area food banks. Big-box stores have such tax incentives, but they aren’t currently available to farmers that grow the food, she said.
Tax breaks would help offset the cost of farm labor, harvesting and transportation, and encourage farms to make more donations of fresh, locally-grown produce to low-income residents, Young said.