From CalhounCountyJournal.com, Joel McNeece, 5 Jul 2011.
Vardaman, MS — Sweet potato farmers asked U.S. Rep. Alan Nunnelee to help ease restrictions within the H-2A foreign worker program, stave off more funding cuts to agriculture and bring more consistency to government regulation of the industry in a meeting last Thursday at Penick Produce in Vardaman.
Nunnelee and members of his staff had lunch in Vardaman to discuss some of the issues troubling local farmers. First up in the discussion was the H-2A foreign worker program.
“I can’t go to a farm and not hear about H-2A labor and how hard it is to get labor,” said Benny Graves, secretary of the Sweet Potato Council. “It’s like the federal government doesn’t want us to have an H-2A worker. We’ve been using that program for a number of years, but it’s getting more and more difficult.”
Nunnelee asked if farmers have noticed a particular change in the process or if it’s just taking longer.
Several farmers pointed out the increased costs, saying the government is now requiring the farmers to pay for the workers’ visas, pay $9 an hour for work, provide housing and other amenities that weren’t required years ago.
Joe Edmondson said when you add all the costs together the foreign workers are actually making closer to $14-15 per hour.
“If you paid $15 an hour, could you get local employees?” Nunnelee asked.
The farmers answered a resounding “no.”
Graves asked Nunnelee to think about agriculture when it comes to the next farm bill.
“Anything you can do to limit the bleeding,” Graves said. “Research at Mississippi State is very important to us. We’d love to have more money in all the programs, but sometimes it’s just a matter of limiting the bleeding best you can.”
Nunnelee pointed out that he is on the Agriculture subcommittee, “so all Ag spending comes over my desk.”
“We did cut some spending,” Nunnelee said. “But there were some folks who didn’t think we did enough so they came in and had a lot of cuts, particularly to research. I voted against those additional cuts.”
Nunnelee said of the farm bill that he understands farmers most want “predictability and consistency.”
“There have been efforts in this congress to modify provisions in the existing farm bill in regards to appropriations and I’m opposed to that,” Nunnelee said. “Changes in our farm bill, the time and place to do it is when the farm bill comes up later this year or early next year. Once we enact it, we have to give you the certainty to make your decisions.”
Farmers also expressed concerns about EPA regulations growing stricter on top of new issues with the FDA and USDA inspectors.
Rob Langston, vice-president of Penick Produce in Vardaman, explained the restrictions from one agency to the next become difficult to manage and asked Nunnelee to help get it all under one roof so it would be more consistent.
“Agriculture is very, very important in North Mississippi,” Rep. Nunnelee said. “I’m learning that sweet potatoes and the issues relating to the federal government are very different from issues that relate to soybeans, cotton, and corn.”
“We’re going to have a lot fewer farmers 10-20 years from now than we have today,” said J.R. Penick of Vardaman. “The government should keep that in mind. Food is going to become more scarce. They need to remember the American farmer.”