Labor supply tops concerns at USDA outlook forum

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ARLINGTON, Va. — U.S. growers have a problem with labor, and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack isn’t shy about identifying who’s responsible for fixing it.

During a Feb. 23 keynote speech at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2012 Agricultural Outlook Forum, Vilsack called on Congress to act on comprehensive immigration reform, lest America face a future where crops rot in the fields because growers lack workers.

“All of America, but especially farm country, needs comprehensive immigration reform, and we need it now,” Vilsack said Feb. 23. “With the risk of rotting crops, there is no excuse for the effort by some who want to demonize immigrant labor or prevent meaningful reform of a system that everyone in the Congress and the country admits is not functioning.”

In a news conference after his presentation, Vilsack said that it’s up to Congress to decide whether the USDA should administer a guest worker program, as some lawmakers have proposed.

“The ability to do anything like (USDA running a guest worker program) requires congressional direction, and the real answer here is comprehensive immigration reform,” he said. “We can talk about half-solutions or focus on talking about a particular industry, but the nation needs comprehensive immigration reform.”

Other challenges facing U.S. agriculture during the next year — and decade — include federal budget cuts, extreme weather events, trade barriers and uncertain global supplies that could drive up food prices, according to speakers at the conference.

As the USDA celebrates its 150th year, it faces the challenge of convincing taxpayers of the value of continuing to support agriculture with their tax dollars, said Dan Glickman, one of eight former secretaries of agriculture during a plenary session.

During his economic outlook, USDA chief economist Joseph Glauber said weather will continue to be a particular worry for agriculture, particularly in the South and Southeast U.S.

“Dryness is expected to persist in the South and get worse,” Glauber said.

A Feb. 16 USDA drought monitor reported more extreme drought than at the same time last year and marked “exceptional” drought throughout western Texas, much of Georgia and northern Florida.

The trade deficit is also a concern, with the 2011 U.S. trade deficit of $6.2 billion in fresh produce expected to swell to $10.7 billion in 2021, according to USDA long-term projections.

 “Expect this year to be a strong year for agriculture, especially with trade,” Vilsack said during his keynote speech.

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Thom Katt    
Midwest  |  February, 24, 2012 at 03:34 PM

President Obama needs immigration reform to help in his re-election bid. Tom Vilasack needs President Obama to be re-elected to keep his job. Thus Thom Vilasack must convince everyone in agriculture that immigration reform is the patriotic and economic thing to do. We need deficit reduction, an effective energy policy and a balanced budget much worse than we need immigration reform. But those issues don't fit well into the re-election tool box because President Obama has been generally ineffective on those concerns. Oh well, at least this time Sec. Villasack was out there calling for something constructive to be done, instead of apologizing for something destructive that had been done by President Obama, EPA, DOL or any of the other Executive Agencies. That is a bit of an upgrade to what he usually does.

Texas  |  February, 24, 2012 at 05:16 PM

The good secretary says nothing about the millions and millions lost in equity by dairy families, poultry, beef and pork producers over the last 3 to 4 years from using feed to ultimately burn up in less efficient automobiles dnd trucks. Apparently we are now so dependent on foreign oil, that we are now exporting gas and ethanol. Nobody has the cajones to stand up to the EPA and energy czars, as well as the corn lobby, and stop the most rediculous program, ever considered, no, shoved down America's throat in decades.

David Bell    
Sault ste. Maire MI  |  February, 24, 2012 at 09:20 PM

We don't need immigration reform we need welfare reform, hunger is a great motivator to get people to work, I'm sick of training four bums to fill one position, they have state credit cards called bridge cards, rent assistance, Heating assistance , free medical . Why work , and all their kids are imprinted in that way of life also. We're destroying The future of are country that many of are fathers died for.

Max Rodibaugh    
Frankfort, IN  |  February, 25, 2012 at 07:59 AM

I agree with the Secretary on this one. I believe we in agriculture have our "heads in the sand" if we don't think immigration reform is important to much of the food producing sector. My sense is that there is a much higher % undocumented workers in ag than we all realize. When are our politicians going to address this like statesmen rather than politicians? When are we as citizens going to engage in a meaningful dialogue on this important issue?

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