Agriculture officials in favor of Utah Compact in order to possibly solve farm labor issue | TSLN.com

Agriculture officials in favor of Utah Compact in order to possibly solve farm labor issue

Eric Brown, Greeley Tribune

For the many producers concerned with finding enough hired help to make it through another harvest or another winter on their dairy or ranch, Colorado Agriculture Commissioner John Salazar says there’s a solution, and believes it could be only a matter of time – and of political will power – before it’s put in place and billions of dollars in lost agriculture production nationwide can be prevented.

Salazar was in Greeley, CO, at the 2012 Colorado Farm Show in January and, for the second time in the last six months, was praising and promoting to Weld County producers the Utah Compact – a piece of legislation in that state that would allow unauthorized foreigners to attain a two-year work permit as long as they could pass a background check, prove they’ve been working in the U.S., pay a fine for being here illegally and pay any necessary back taxes.

In addition to attaining a work permit, the Utah Compact – introduced in 2010 and still awaiting approval from the federal government to be put in place – would allow that worker to keep his or her immediate family members all living together in the U.S.

Salazar isn’t the only ag official who thinks the Utah Compact could be the magic bullet for the agriculture industry if adopted at the federal level.

At a conference of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture in October, Salazar said agriculture commissioners from every state put their support behind this legislation being put in place nationwide.

The push from ag officials for such legislation comes in response to the thousands of farmers across the country – many in Weld county – who say they can’t find enough hired help locally or through existing programs aimed at bringing migrant workers to the U.S.

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Salazar said he believes with support from agriculture officials, the Utah Compact could be adopted at the federal level as early as next year.

“With 2012 being an election year, I don’t anticipate anything being done on it this year; It’s too sensitive of an issue,” Salazar said. “However, I think it will be impossible for our next president, whoever that is, to ignore the agriculture industry’s demand for action on this.”

Farmers and ranchers say the current H-2A program – which is the only federal program that allows a foreign national entry into the U.S. for temporary or seasonal agricultural work – is too expensive with too many requirements, such as having to provide housing for the migrant workers.

And farmers say most U.S. natives either won’t, or can’t do the work.

Salazar and other experts who spoke during the three-day Colorado Farm Show in Greeley, CO, last month stressed that producers nationally, not just in Colorado, are struggling to find quality workers.

They explained there is an 8-12 percent labor shortage in the agriculture industry across the country, and they all agreed the problem is worse in states that have tightened their rules on illegal workers – such as Alabama and Georgia, where billions of dollars were lost in unharvested crops last year.

Providing a local example of the agriculture labor issue, Joe Petrocco with Petrocco Farms Incorporated near Brighton, CO, said during a Farm Show panel discussion his family made the move a couple of years ago to hire local people, instead of using migrant workers – doing so since the H-2A program was too difficult and expensive to use, and because they figured there would be plenty of local people looking for work due to the struggling economy.

However, his family’s operation experienced turnover of about 10 employees per week, he said. The farm struggled to keep workers in the labor-intensive vegetable fields and was unable to harvest about 10 percent of its crops – about a $150,000 loss for the farm, Petrocco said.

Out of the hundreds of American workers Petrocco has hired, only one has lasted a full year, he said.

“(The Utah Compact) is certainly something we’re absolutely in favor of,” said Joe’s father, Dave Petrocco Sr. He attended a conference in Salt Lake City, UT, at which the focus of discussions was the Utah Compact.

“There’s just nothing in place right now that helps vegetable producers or dairy producers and others get the workers they need,” said Dave Petrocco Sr., who, along with Joe, estimates that it costs $3,000 up front just to bring a migrant worker to the family’s farm through the H-2A program. “It’s a major issue. Having a quality group of workers is a top priority for us.”

“But it’s hard work. Local people don’t want to do it, and it’s so tough and expensive to get the foreign workers who are willing and capable of doing it.” stated Salazar, who made his comments about agriculture labor issues and the Utah Compact during the “Dairy Days” portion of the Colorado Farm Show discussions – not the one Joe Petrocco spoke at.

The dairy industry has been particularly unsatisfied with the federal H-2A program because it only addresses seasonal labor, and dairies need workers year-round.

“We definitely do need something done,” said Pierce area dairyman Charles Tucker, a Weld county councilman who was unable to attend the Farm Show discussion, but participated in agriculture labor discussions with staff members of Senator Michael Bennet, Democrat-Colorado, and other area producers during a Jan. 12 meeting in Greeley, CO.

Tucker said he, like many producers, has struggled to find American workers willing to perform the hard labor needed on a dairy operation.

“I’m not in favor of an open border, and I’m not in favor of a closed border. I’m in favor of a controlled border,” he said. “The Utah Compact seems to be a step in the right direction.

“Something needs to be done. That’s for sure,” concluded Tucker.

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