Farmers to reps: Fix labor now

Collin Peterson, left, chairman of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, confers with Reps. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, prior to a field hearing on the new farm bill May 1 in Nampa, Idaho.

Failure to find solution will destroy U.S. agriculture, producers warn

By JERRY HAGSTROM

For the Capital Press

FRESNO, Calif. -- Farmers used a U.S. House Agriculture Committee hearing on the 2012 Farm Bill here May 3 to push for immigration reform for farmworkers.

"As important as the farm bill has become to America's specialty crop industries, it is difficult to have a serious discusson about the future success of specialty crop producers without acknowledging the elephant in the room: farm labor," said Jon Reelhorn, owner of Belmont Nursery in Fresno. "We fully recognize that farm labor is not a traditional farm bill issue. Nonetheless, we raise it for this simple reason: Lack of timely and thoughtful resolution of the farm labor crisis will hasten the offshoring of our specialty crop and livestock agriculture."

Reelhorn said that the recession has not led native-born Americans to seek farm work and that the worksite raids that began under the Bush administration have accelerated under the Obama administration.

Reelhorn, who testified on behalf of the American Nursery & Landscape Association and the California Association of Nurseries and Garden Centers, said that he and others supported the AgJOBS bill introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

"It's not fair for the government to make me a criminal," said David Roberts, an orange, lemon and grapefruit producer in Visalia, Calif., told the committee after testifying that he knows he cannot maintain a legal work force. "I am a criminal on multiple levels," Roberts said.

Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, told the witnesses that they need to make sure "the way left and right do not dominate the conversation" on immigration reform. The borders need protection, Conaway said, "but these are people."

House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson said in an interview after the hearing that he was not surprised that the farmers brought up immigration even though his committee does not have jurisdiction over it.

"Every place I go in agriculture we get the same message," Peterson said. "Agriculture understands we've got to have some way of meeting this (challenge). The problem is the two extremes won't do anything."

Terry Bledsoe, a Riverdale, Calif., dairy producer, testified that a new dairy safety net "must be herd-size and region neutral and must not send signals that more production is welcome when farm milk prices are low." The Milk Income Loss Contract program, whose benefits are limited by herd size "is not working," Bledsoe said.

Sugar beet growers in Idaho testified in favor of the current sugar program, and Peterson said the sugar program "is OK and working exactly as it is supposed to. I don't foresee big changes in sugar." Peterson added that he would want to find ways to encourage the use of sugar in renewable fuels, as a California sugar beet grower suggested.

House Agriculture ranking member Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said that Californians must realize that farmers in other parts of the country object to set asides for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which is used for environmental cleanup, because the state of California establishes stricter standards than other states.

But Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., reminded Lucas that the clean water, clean air and endangered species act set the basic environmental standards, and the farmers testified that cleaning up California environmental problems is a national issue because Americans in other states eat so much food from California.

Farmers in Calfiornia said the Average Crop Revenue Election program and the permanent disaster program are not working well. Peterson said those programs are too complicated, but that he sees potential in both of them.

Specialty crop and organic growers thanked Peterson for including their research and promotion programs in the 2008 Farm Bill.

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