From DemocratAndChronicle.com, Louise Slaughter, Guest Essayist, 29 Jul 2011.
Our farmers continue be the leading driver of our upstate economy, furthering the tradition of a robust regional agricultural sector that currently ranks second in the nation in the production of apples, third in grapes and wine, and fourth in a host of other vegetable crops. They help put fresh fruits and vegetables on our tables, create thousands of regional jobs, and contribute millions of dollars to our economy.
Yet much of the bounty they produce is at risk due to the inconsistencies and red tape of the guest worker program that they rely on to harvest their crops.
The program in question here is the H-2A agricultural guest worker program, managed by the Departments of Labor, State and Homeland Security. The process has become increasingly cumbersome, farmers are mired in excessive time delays and paperwork burdens, and much higher rates of denials are being issued by the Department of Labor. Farmers have told us that they need this labor to keep their farms profitable and local fruits on our shelves.
That’s why I organized a meeting in Washington this month that finally gave growers from across upstate direct access to the federal officials that approve and deny requests for seasonal workers.
Deputy Secretary of Labor Seth Harris and members of his staff came to meet with growers from western New York who explained that boxes of paperwork were being required each season, inconsistencies in the approval process were costing them excessive amounts of time and money, and that as a result of these impairments some were forced to pull up their crops, giving up on some produce all together. The discussion was positive, and after a decade of frustration our growers finally had a productive discussion with the federal officials who have jurisdiction over their concerns.
I understand that the efficient administration of the H-2A program is a matter of saving local jobs. It is estimated that for every farm owner and farm employee, there are three jobs directly related to agriculture in off-the-farm employment, with many of these positions held by American workers. In New York, this means 59,000 on-farm jobs and more than 150,000 related off-the-farm jobs depend on a reliable H-2A program. It’s absolutely critical for our local economy that we act swiftly with this many jobs on the line, particularly during tough economic times.
While I am a longtime supporter of the Ag Jobs bill that would put in place a solution to many of the problems our local growers are facing, I’m keenly aware that it has been paralyzed by opponents in other parts of the country. Our farmers need a solution now. We must ensure family farms can remain viable and continue providing local foods. The harvest can’t wait and neither can they.