Farmers: Little hope for immigration reform in 2014 | TSLN.com

Farmers: Little hope for immigration reform in 2014

Congress's unwillingness to rewrite immigration laws is causing many problems in agriculture, farm leaders said today but they seem resigned that the House is unlikely to follow the Senate in passing legislation this year.

The report, "No Longer Home Grown," released by the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform and the Partnership for a New American Economy, says that the shortage of immigrant labor is increasing U.S. reliance on imported fresh produce, reducing farm expansion and higher level jobs for Americans.

Colorado dairy farmer Mary Kraft speaks about immigration reform at a panel discussion held today at the National Press Club in Washington. (Jerry Hagstrom/The Hagstrom Report)

At a panel discussion at the National Press Club, Mary Kraft, a dairy producer from Fort Morgan, Colo., said that she had grown up on a dairy farm but had not wanted to go into dairy farming because but later decided to because growth and a reliance on immigrant labor created a better life.

Kraft said she and her husband had started with 250 cows, but now have a farm with 5,500. Of the 75 people who work on the farm, Kraft said, only eight are Anglos.

A few years ago, during a tornado that blew down buildings housing cows and calves, Kraft noted, all her employees showed up in the middle of the night to help find them. After going home for a shower at 5:30 a.m., they came back to milk the cows, she added.

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"We are a 75-family dairy farm," she said.

A range of other people and businesses — from veterinarians to hoof trimmers to a plant that makes cheese for Domino's Pizza — depend on her farm's production, Kraft noted.

But now she worries that labor is so hard to get that her own children will not want to go into the business.

Chalmers Carr, a peach farmer from South Carolina with a payroll of $8.8 million, said he is the biggest employer in his county.

"If farms can't continue to grow, you lose the economic base" of the area, he said.

A user of the H2A immigration program, Carr said that a few years ago when the government slowed the arrival of his foreign workers to thin the peach crop he lost $2 million.

Russell Boening, a dairy farmer from Texas, said he relies on immigrant laborers who have grown up on farms in Mexico to work with his animals. Boening said his workers have legal status, but he that he worries about replacing them as they get to retirement age.

But all of those who spoke said they find fighting for immigration reform difficult.

"Certainly in Colorado we have had a lot of conversations," Kraft said.

Boening said, "Some Republicans in Congress say they support reform, but just not this year. … We need a reliable labor force … we need clarity from the government."

Castaneda said that last October and November there were rumors immigration was going to be "the next hot topic," but then Syria became an issue.

"There always seems there is something urgent in front," he added. "I don't want to say it is an excuse, but it is such a hot topic they would rather punt the ball. We are the ones taking the brunt of it."

Castaneda added that with the economy improving the situation is getting worse.

National Council of Farmer Co-operatives President and CEO Chuck Conner, who moderated the panel, said that agriculture "speaking with one unified voice has strengthened our voice."

Baenig agreed, saying that Congress "has appreciated the unified message."

Chalmers said, "In the last five years we have seen a big change in the understanding of the current work force," but Congress still has "no clear vision on how they are going to deal with it."

Asked why Congress seems more willing to provide visas for high-tech workers than farm workers, Chalmers said the tech industry has more money.

Conner said that he hopes immigration "is not a money issue." F

–The Hagstrom Report