Farm Bureau leaders join push for AgJOBS
In a tone of increased frustration, California farmers and ranchers were in Washington, D.C. last week urging Congress to address agricultural labor needs. They stressed the importance of a stable, legal work force to congressional leaders in face-to-face meetings, in impromptu discussions in the halls of Congress and in formal testimony during a House Agriculture Committee hearing on farm labor needs.
Those representing the California Farm Bureau Federation included Oceanside tomato farmer Luawanna Hallstrom, who is chairwoman of the CFBF Labor Advisory Committee; Moorpark citrus grower David Schwabauer, who is a CFBF director; and Watsonville strawberry grower Elia Vasquez, who is a member of the CFBF Labor Advisory Committee and a former CFBF director.
While agricultural leaders were working to persuade members of Congress to address farm labor issues, farmworker advocacy groups were also in Washington to conduct a parallel lobbying effort.
"We've been successful in delivering the message to Congress that agriculture needs AgJOBS," said Jack King, CFBF national affairs manager, who also was in Washington last week. "We've made it clear that our ability to produce food is at stake.
"But even as members of Congress understand the seriousness of this situation, there's still a gulf between recognizing the problem and being willing to do something about it," King said.
Right now Senate Bill 340 (Feinstein) and House Bill 371 (Cannon), named the Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits, and Security Act of 2007, is awaiting a vote. Passage of this legislation, dubbed AgJOBS, has become more urgent than ever, CFBF leaders said. Congress' failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform earlier this year and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's adoption of new Social Security "no-match" rules has heightened farmers' concerns.
"Immigration reform is a must for U.S. agriculture," Ontario dairy producer Randy Mouw told the House Agriculture Committee last week during the hearing on the labor needs of agriculture. "Not one person who has walked onto my dairy looking for work in the past five years is a person who was born in this country. And, based on my conversations with other dairymen, they'll tell you the same story."
He said he would like to see Congress recognize that maintaining a stable, legal farm work force is a national security issue and must be made a priority. And he stressed that the current H2A program does not meet the needs of dairies because these workers are not temporary or seasonal, but year-round employees.
Mouw also expressed concern about the labor crisis having the effect of accelerating the trend toward increased food imports. He said milk production is California's largest agricultural sector with a farmgate value of nearly $5 billion and an overall economic contribution of $47.4 billion. California dairies produce about 38 million pounds of milk a year and throughout the food chain provide about 434,000 jobs.
"By all accounts border and port agents inspect only a very small percentage of food shipments coming into this country," Mouw said. "But every tanker load of milk I ship is tested and every animal I sell is inspected for safety and quality."
Calling the need for a legal, stable work force critical, American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman told the House Agriculture Committee that the current farm labor situation is on the minds of farmers across the nation.
"I don't think there is any question I get asked more frequently than 'When is Congress going to fix our nation's labor issues?'" Stallman said. "I cannot answer that question. Only members of this committee and your colleagues in the House and Senate can answer.
"But, nowhere is the problem more acute than in agriculture," Stallman said. "We are on the front lines of this debate."
Stallman cited government studies that suggest at least 50 percent of hired workers in agriculture are unauthorized. He also noted that at $11 to $12 an hour, when benefits are included, farm wages are well above the current federal minimum wage of $5.85 an hour and the California minimum of $7.50 an hour.
This compares to $6.65 a hour for food preparation, $11 an hour for janitorial workers and $14.35 for construction labor. But, even with competitive wages there has been a decline of at least 60,000 hired workers in the national agricultural work force.
"That fact demonstrates quite clearly the difficult situation farmers face as they scramble for additional labor in an economy with a relatively low unemployment rate and a lack of individuals willing to work in agriculture," Stallman said. "Right now, in our economy, there are 10 million workers who work for lower wages than they could make in agriculture.
"The bottom line is this: A significant disruption in the supply of agricultural workers will increase farmers' costs, put more foreign-grown produce in our supermarkets, strengthen our international competitors, weaken our nation's food security and put many farmers out of business as they lose their workers or the costs of labor get beyond their reach."
In a private interview with Ag Alert in her Washington, D.C. offices last week, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said some members of Congress oppose AgJOBS primarily because the legislation includes a path to citizenship, which has sparked controversy.
"That's something that's in the community they respond to," Feinstein said. "As for the outlook on AgJOBS, right now it's very difficult. We need 10 people (senators) to change their minds. We've had a no vote in the Senate on cloture before."
Cloture is a procedure for limiting debate on legislation and, if achieved by a vote of 60 senators, moves the legislation to the Senate floor for a vote. Failure to achieve cloture indicates a lack of majority for bill passage.
"We have five commitments and I estimate we need another 10," she said. "Whether we'll get that or not, I don't know."
Another problem, she said, is the lack of specific information about farmworker shortages.
"There has been no comprehensive ability to bring something that can be verified about the condition of farm labor right now in this country—in apples, grapes, oranges, lemons and whatever commodity. There's no proof that in Oregon, for example, they're missing X thousand number of workers or in Washington they're short. We have no state-by-state total of worker shortages.
"It's very hard to find this information," Feinstein said. "People don't want to come forward and say they're short workers. They find ways to get the work done. But people like Toni Scully in Lake County came forward and offered a clear demonstration of what the problem is. That's what we need."
Schwabauer, who has made a number of trips to the Capitol to press Congress for immigration reform and passage of AgJOBS, said he is more optimistic now than in the past that farm labor problems will be addressed.
"We're still facing a lot of challenges regarding passage of AgJOBS," Schwabauer said. "But I'm cautiously optimistic. We're still facing an uphill fight regarding passage, but agriculture has made its case and paid its dues with Congress."
He said public concerns about the costs and impacts of illegal immigration have not abated.
"The aspect of this situation that continues to be ignored is the millions of dollars undocumented workers pay into the Social Security system that they will never benefit from," Schwabauer said. "Credible studies show these immigrants contribute more to our economy than they take away."
Schwabauer said he continues to be concerned about securing adequate labor for his own ranches—particularly more aggressive enforcement, no-match letters from Social Security and greater obstacles for critical workers to overcome.
"There are increasing clouds of uncertainty as we prepare for the next growing season," Schwabauer said. "AgJOBS will help ease problems in a business that's already filled with all kinds of risks—water, weather and political wrangling. I just hope members of Congress will take an honest look at our labor situation and vote in the best interest of this nation."
In addition to meeting with members of the U.S. Senate, Hallstrom, who is co-chairwoman of the national Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform, also met with key White House officials, as well as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco.
"We're experiencing the strongest movement for the passage of AgJOBS that we've ever seen," Hallstrom said. "Proof of this is the number of high level meetings we were called into while we were in Washington last week. The emphasis of those meetings was on getting this legislation passed."
She said that California farmers and ranchers need to ride the surge in congressional interest in farm labor needs and press with renewed strength to get AgJOBS passed. She said that means calling, writing, e-mailing and visiting. That needs to be done right now, she said.
(Kate Campbell is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
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