From TheDailyNewsOnline.com, “\Marc Heller, Johnson News Service, 15 Nov 2011.
An agricultural lender is trying to rally Congressional support for an expanded guest-worker program for agriculture.
If Congress pushes an enforcement-only policy – E-Verify – without an expanded pool of legal farmworkers, then 1,049 farms in New York, 1,732 total in the Northeast, are “highly vulnerable” to going out of business, said Robert A. Smith, senior vice president of Farm Credit East.
An enforcement-only policy could wipe out 20,212 full-time farm jobs, plus another 29,894 seasonal positions, according to a report by Farm Credit.
“The economic impact of the loss of over 1,700 farms goes beyond the farm gate, and would undermine the region’s agri-business sector,” Smith writes in the November Grass Roots, New York Farm Bureau’s monthly publication. Farm Credit estimates another 55,311 off-farm jobs in ag-related businesses – processing, inputs and services – would be jeopardized with stricter immigration enforcement without an expanded guest-worker program
Smith testified before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee last month. He said agriculture has been a bright spot in a struggling economy. But E-Verify threatens American jobs, and also puts the food system at risk.
“We believe this is a jobs and food security issue,” Smith told the subcommittee headed by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY.
Of the 1,732 farms Farm Credit estimated to be at risk, the greatest number — 528 — are dairy farms. Dairy makes up about half of the state’s $4.5 billion ag industry. Those 528 dairies represent 8,679 workers, although that is fewer than the 15,345 in fruit production, Farm Credit reported.
The effect of increased enforcement and possible use of electronic verification already is causing some farmers to hold back on expansions, Smith told the immigration subcommittee. The panel in Washington, D.C. revisited an issue that has tied up Congress for several years despite dire warnings from farm groups.
In New York, farm experts say the apple harvest is especially reliant on immigrant labor, but dairy farms increasingly rely on immigrants even though dairies are not eligible for the H2A guest worker program that admits farm workers temporarily.
Stepped-up enforcement and the prospect of the E-Verify program have forced the discussion to resurface. The H2A program is not functioning as intended and is desperately in need of revamping, witnesses told the subcommittee. They also agreed that the growing farm labor crisis cannot be fixed without giving current workers a path to legal status — although such a move could come in varying ways.
“Agriculture needs a much better solution,” said Ronald D. Knutson, an economist with the Food and Agricultural Policy Institute at Texas A&M University.
Among other problems, Knutson said, is that even with increased mechanization, farm work is physically demanding and must be completed on a timely basis — often not giving farmers the time to wait for work permit documentation to go through, for instance.
And dairy work, unlike crop work, is not seasonal. Farmers need milkers around the clock, 365 days a year.
For those reasons, Knutson said, fewer than 5 percent of U.S. farms use the H2A program. And dairy farms are not eligible, although several lawmakers have pledged to extend it to them.
Smith predicted an enforcement-only solution will drive up farmers’ labor costs and those who stay in business may switch to less labor-intensive crops. In the long run, he said, that could lead to more U.S. food imports. He told Schumer that farm labor costs could climb as much as 20 percent.
“That puts them, in many cases, in a nonviable situation,” Smith said.
Lawmakers need to ask, he said, whether they prefer domestic food production that relies on some foreign workers, or overseas production that uses exclusively non-U.S. labor.
(Includes reporting by staff writer Tom Rivers.)