Low-cost labor keeps food prices down, Vilsack stresses


For the Capital Press

WASHINGTON -- Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urged agricultural lobbyists to promote the issue of immigration reform to the American public.

In a luncheon speech to the Agribusiness Club of Washington May 25, Vilsack noted that California and Florida farmers are complaining about the uncertainty of the available of farm labor.

"The agriculture world has to do a better job of explaining to ordinary Americans why they have a stake in immigration reform," he said. "About half the food you are consuming was touched at one point by immigrant hands."

Vilsack said he does not think most Americans recognize that they enjoy a higher level of discretionary income because food costs are lower in the United States than in most countries. Farm productivity and efficient retailing are a large part of the reason for the low cost of food in the United States, he said, but added that low cost immigrant labor is also a factor.

Vilsack suggested that the lobbyists tell those Americans who want to force immigrants to leave the country that the citizenry would then have a choice of higher food prices or more reliance on imported food from countries where wage rates are lower.

Most Americans, he added, would not want higher food costs and would also reject a reliance on imports because their experience with imported oil has been so negative.

Noting that on a recent trip to Florida he had performed a farmworker's job "for five minutes and was exhausted," Vilsack also suggested that the lobbyists explain that most immigrants are working hard and living the American dream.

Discussing other issues, Vilsack also told the lobbyists that in June USDA will issue new rules to strengthen enforcement under the Packers and Stockyards Act, which is supposed to keep livestock markets competitive. Vilsack noted that poultry growers testified at a USDA-Justice Department workshop in Alabama Friday that they believe they have been mistreated by large poultry companies.

Larger dairy producers are having a harder time getting credit, Vilsack noted, suggesting that they turn to USDA business development programs to get loan guarantees with banks.

Vilsack also noted that U.S. food exports are up, particularly in Southeast Asia, China, Africa and the Middle East. He said the increases in export sales to those growing markets show that the administration's recently launched Feed the Future program for agriculture development in the Third World will help those countries develop a middle class that will buy more imports from the United States.

Some commodity prices have been down in recent weeks, but Vilsack told reporters that USDA officials still believe "this year will be better than last."

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