Stallman says farms need new, effective guestworker program
By MITCH LIES
PORTLAND -- Farmers and ranchers need an effective guestworker program, but there is little will in Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform, the president of the American Farm Bureau Federation said.
"Unfortunately, I don't think the will is there to do comprehensive immigration reform, and there is a reluctance to carve out something special for agriculture, which is what we really need," Bob Stallman said.
He said a GOP plan to require all employers to use the government's E-Verify program to make sure workers are documented would be disastrous to agriculture without a workable guestworker program.
"We would lose over half of our workforce immediately, and maybe more," he said.
Stallman made his comments here during a wide-ranging interview with the Capital Press. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.
Q Can you be more specific about the type of immigration reform you would like to see?
A What America's farmers and ranchers want is a legal guestworker program that allows workers to come across the border, work and go back, which is what many workers want to do. They just want the economic opportunity to work. They don't want to stay here.
In an ideal world that is what we want. The H-2A (temporary agricultural worker) program is the only existing guestworker program. And it has a host of flaws and difficulties, which make it not very usable.
Q What are you hearing from Farm Bureau members in states, such as Arizona, that are passing laws aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration?
A Anecdotally, we're hearing that in those states that are passing laws, workers are just not showing up, because they are afraid they will be detained and deported. There definitely are problems being created by the state laws.
Q What do you view as the biggest threat facing American agriculture?
A I consistently say the biggest threat facing American agriculture is excess regulation, and we are seeing it, particularly out of this administration.
You are talking about everything from water-quality regulations on confined animal feeding operations ... (to) dust regulations, the (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) permitting of spray nozzles. The regulator burdens just keep falling down on agriculture, and ultimately that will determine whether we are going to have a viable industry in this country, because there is nothing to prevent production from leaving this country.
Q We noticed in a recent news conference on Capitol Hill that you talked about how important it is that Congress act quickly on pending free trade agreements. How important is it to get those agreements ratified?
A It is very important. The South Korea, Colombia and Panama free trade agreements all are positive for agriculture. In the aggregate, they are worth about $2.5 billion more in agricultural exports once they are fully implemented, with the South Korean agreement alone worth about $1.9 billion.
Traditionally, it used to be our interests were all offensive in trade agreements. It was like going out and opening up new markets and gaining access. With respect to these agreements, we now are on the defensive, because we waited so long and so many other countries are negotiating trade agreements with the three countries.
We were down in Colombia the first week April and talking to some of their industry people. They say they like American products. The transportation costs are better. But we can't compete with the different tariff structure.
We've lost over half of our agricultural export market to Colombia over the last two years because we have not implemented the Colombia FTA.
We now are in a defensive mode. We need to hurry up and do it to keep from losing markets as opposed to going out and gaining markets.
Q How is the (newly formed) U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance doing?
A The U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance is moving forward. It is going to be a major effort to improve consumer trust in today's modern agricultural production methods.
We just had a large meeting Thursday and Friday (June 2-3) in St. Louis where we rolled out the strategy for our communications plan to the board of the alliance and to industry partners who are interested in supporting us.
Our goal is to have an effort that goes for three to five years, funded at a level of $25 million to $30 million a year, with about half of that coming from producer organizations and producer checkoffs, and about half coming from the agri-business sector.
Q Are you ready to unveil that plan to the media yet?
A Not quite yet. But we are getting close. You'll be hearing a lot more about some of the details the first part of August.
Q Is it mostly aimed at educating the American public about today's agriculture?
A Not really. Education is a component of it, but we're going to create a dialogue with consumers. The messaging behind a lot of the programs we've been doing as agricultural organizations is designed to make us feel good about ourselves and answer questions we think consumers want to hear.
But we haven't really asked consumers, "What are your questions?" So we are kind of flipping it around. We are going to create a dialogue with consumers and directly answer their questions about why we do what we do.
And we will use that process as an opportunity to create a greater understanding about why our modern agricultural methods benefit consumers: Not just benefit producers and how we do business, but benefit consumers in the long run, with the safety, the abundance and quality of our food.
Q What kinds of issues are you addressing here at your AFBF board meeting?
A As any organization board, we have a lot of internal things that we have to talk about.
From an external standpoint, we are spending quite a bit of time talking about the budget situation we are facing and what it means for the farm program discussions.
We are talking about it in the context of how are we going to approach what we view as a pretty major crisis in terms of budget funding, not just for this country, but for agriculture in particular.