Farmers express frustration over labor situation

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Misguided immigration enforcement policies and political gridlock on comprehensive immigration reform in Congress put U.S. food production and jobs at risk from the continuing crisis in farm labor, ag interests said in news teleconference Wednesday. 

Moderated by Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, Washington, D.C., the teleconference featured several producers who spoke about their unfilled labor needs and frustration with Washington, D.C., inaction.

Producing on a 12th-generation family farm that has been active since 1803, Maureen Torrey, vice president of marketing for vegetable grower Torrey Farms Inc., Elba, N.Y., said the farm is well situated to serve nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population, in addition to access to easy access to Eastern export shipping ports.

However, she said labor represents a big negative to the region.

“Currently, the demand for our agricultural products is very good, but our labor supply is very short for all sizes of farm operations,” she said. “Help wanted ads are in the paper every day.”

Dairy farmers and vegetable growers and will have a hard time filling demand for workers, she said.

“No program such as H-2A exists for dairy and the domestic work force doesn’t exist to expand,”  she said.

On the other hand, Torrey said Canadian producers are waiting to ship more milk, vegetables and fruit to the U.S. because they have a viable agricultural worker program.

In New York, labor-intensive vegetable crops are being diverted to grain crops, she said.

“It is making an economic impact on our community with the loss of wages and the loss of jobs,” Torrey said.

She said every job on the farm provides three to four other jobs in the community and taking that labor away is hurting towns, schools and hospitals.

“We need to have our Congress in Washington develop a common-sense program for sourcing farm employees or will we see a different face of agriculture here in western New York,” Torrey said.

Craig Regelbrugge, vice president for government relations and research for the American Nursery and Landscape Association and co-chairman of the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform, said U.S. needs not only immigrants for science and technology sectors but also to help harvest crops.

“Congress’ pro-business Republicans should be doing everything in their power to prevent high value U.S. farms from closing and production leaving the U.S.,” he said.

Regelbrugge said the Obama administration was ramping up employer audits without providing a solution to the immigration crisis.

While farmers of grain commodities are benefiting from high prices and global strong demand, many growers of specialty crops face international competition that make them vulnerable to the ongoing shortage of agricultural labor, Regelbrugge said.

He expressed hope that greater involvement of more players in the supply chain will make a difference in the debate.             

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Ed g    
new york  |  September, 21, 2012 at 12:12 PM

Maybe someone should think about labor before they decide to expand beyond their local labor force will provide.

Joe Dairyman    
USA  |  September, 21, 2012 at 07:30 PM

Ed you have no clue how Ag works do you. Spoiled Amercans who have never been without food will someday feel the pinch of higher food costs. And if you think being dependent on foreign oil is bad wait till you are dependent on foreign food. Better off having the foreigner harvest your crop here than abroad.

Batavia, NY  |  September, 21, 2012 at 09:25 PM

We need a real guest worker program. One that ensures that these people leave when finished working, pay taxes, and are not a burden on our health care system. The employers should be responsible for their health care, not the taxpayer. Also children of these guest workers should not be American citizens just because they are born here. They should be required to return home with their parents and not become an anchor baby so the parents can get welfare checks here. Also, if a guest worker knocks up the local heavy set, undesirable white woman, that child should return home with him also. If the mother wants to she can go to Mexico with her child and boyfriend. A well run guest worker program can be good for America and also for Mexico.

Ed g    
new york  |  September, 21, 2012 at 10:02 PM

Just because my opinion differs from yours does not mean I have no understanding of ag. Grew up in a small town in the central valley of California. So I have some understanding of more than just dairy. Was involved in both 4-H and FFA. Went to Fresno St for dairy. Have been dairying for over 20 years now after serving in the marine corps. A question for you. How many cows do you really need to survive? Here are some of the reasons I see why dairy farmers like to use guest workers. A captive work force, available when and where you want them. American workers expect time off not to mention needing time for family emergencies. Cheap labor. There are some local farms that bring their workers to wal-mart once a week(this is the only time they are off the farm). When I was In Saudi Arabia I saw how the Saudi's would treat their guest workers. I see little difference in how some farmers treat their workers. It is sad that we have gotten to the point where Americans are unwilling to do this work but than maybe if we could pay more than it might be more attractive. Why are dairy farmers paying Jerry almost $700,000? Is he really worth that much, I really doubt it. Look how much your coop pays it's ceo, and ask yourself is he/she really doing that great of a job? But hey I'm just a stupid dairy farmer and I know absolutely nothing right.

Batavia, NY  |  September, 22, 2012 at 09:57 AM

Did I read this correctly? Did Ed just question the pay of the boss man of NMPF? And the coop CEO's also? That is blasphemy. We are all supposed to act like stupid little dairy farmers and let the smart people with the 6 or 7 figure incomes, who suck off of the people who actually produce the milk, make all of the big decisions for us. Get back in your place Ed.

Ed g    
new york  |  September, 22, 2012 at 10:51 AM

sorry ken, I may need to go back out to the barn and hide with the cows so they can't find me.

Wisconsin  |  September, 22, 2012 at 03:52 PM

Hi Ed- You say that you are dairying-- does your wife help out 20-30-40 hours per week on the farm after her day job to get insurance? To your question of how many cows do you need to survive? Is that all we should do-- just survive?? Were you satisfied to "just survive" 2009? Remember that we need to talk about the next generation-- the ones that would potentially buy your farm not those of us who started with pre 1990 costs. If you have 60 cows giving 80 pounds a day you with 2% of the milk unsalable from fresh cows, etc you would sell about 1,500,000 pounds per year. This would be 129,000 pounds or 1290 HWT/month. When you look at what is left over after paying feed and cropping bills this year, most farmers will have less than $8/hwt and must stretch it to cover all other costs--electric, vet, repairs, etc plus the bank plus family living. Insurance for a family easily runs $1000/month-- about $1/hwt. $2500/month for family living is another $2 HWT (can you raise a family on this amount? Would you and your spouse work 70 hours/week to get it?) Add 80 acres for $400,000 (1.50/hwt), 60 cows@$1600 ($1hwt), equipment $100,000 ($1.25 hwt). This is 6.25/hwt before paying the electric bill and without replacing cows that die or equipment that wears out. Do you have kids taking over your farm? All of our friends sent their kids to college and verbally said don't come back it's not worth it. We expanded and brought two sons back. We want the to do more than just survive. My grandfather was an immigrant that saw farm work as a way to better his children's lives. Many of our employees think that way too. Even with competetive pay, time off, vacations, etc. Americans do not want physical jobs. TV says life should be easy.

TN  |  September, 22, 2012 at 10:18 PM

I think Ken and a lot more need to read the constitution of the United States, that little thing that made this country what it is. Read it with out bias and it is a eye opener to humanity.

Ed g    
new york  |  September, 22, 2012 at 10:44 PM

Linda, my wife works off the farm and has allergies so her help is very limited. I do have an uncle that helps as much as he can. Four children oldest is in her second year of college. Have told all the kids that they will go to college for something other than production ag but are more than welcome to come back and farm with me. We will add cows if and when that happens. $1000 a month for health insurance would be a bargain around here. I agree nobody wants to just survive, the problem is that at times like this and 2009 that is the only thing that can be done. Until something is done to fix dairy pricing I am afraid that we will continue to have bad years. I am opposed to any kind of supply management other than the free market. One of our biggest challenges is to convince processors that it is in their best interest to see that farms survive also. I can not say how it is there but around here there have been so many farms go under that support services have just about disappeared. How much of the wages paid to guest workers are sent back to their home? So you expanded and brought two sons back. The question is would you expand if you knew that the only way you would have enough labor is to bring guest workers in, and in knowing this would you not plan and continue to look ahead at future labor needs before it became a problem? You say Americans do not want physical jobs. What does that make us? Would you be opposed if ford or GM fired all the UAW workers and hired guest workers? How about wal-mart etc...?

NC  |  September, 23, 2012 at 07:33 AM

In our area you would be hard pressed to find labor if it weren’t for the immigrant worker. On the dairy farms and any other farm that needs farm labor. Even with high unemployment people are spoiled here and will not work in this types of jobs. There is a solution, a guest worker program for ag workers to come here and work collect payroll taxes as most already do if the worker returns to their home country they would be given a portion of those taxes if they do not return the moneys would stay in the US. There is a lot of payroll taxes paid by undocumented workers that goes into the US and state treasuries that will not be claimed by these undocumented workers. So what if they send some of their earnings to their home country, look at the jobs that are created by having the milk in the tank and the crop in the warehouse. Also we can eat our own food not food that is shipped from other countries. If we do not get a workable guest worker program we will be getting our food from these same people just shipped from their country grown under no telling what conditions and at what price?

Mi  |  September, 23, 2012 at 08:05 AM

How many farm families have been driven out of farming that loved farming, but the market changed by factory farms with foreign labor. Pay enough money and Americans will do any job

Ed g    
new york  |  September, 23, 2012 at 10:41 AM

Mike has a point, the way some of these guest workers are treated is not much better than slavery. The unemployed will not start doing this kind of work until their benefits run out. My brother was laid off back in 09, he told me it would take two full time jobs at minimum wage to make as much on unemployment. My statement still stands why are farmers expanding beyond the local labor force? Does one 1000 cow dairy create more economic growth for a community than 10 100 cow dairies? How many tractors does that 1000 cow dairy have compared to 10 100? If half of the wages are being sent back home what is the economic impact to the community? I would have less of a problem if the workers brought their families and planed on immigrating than I do with the ones who are here just to work, as long as the dairy is paying a living wage with benefits than it would be a positive impact on the economy. David we are not going to stop the consolidation of the industry. The best we can do is slow the exodus. It will continue to take more and more cows to cash flow as long as the federal government has a cheap food policy. just remember 100 years ago if you had 10 cows you could make a living, than with the advent of milking machines one farmer could handle more cows, than came parlors, now we have robots coming of age so if things are set up right I imagine one farmer could handle up to 150 cows. In my opinion this is what government wants it wont be long until the dairy farmer is nothing more than some crop farmers a part time farmer with a job off the farm to live on. In the governments eyes make food for the good of the people. But hey I am just a dumb farmer.

Batavia, NY  |  September, 23, 2012 at 12:25 PM

I have read the constitution. I did not see the part that says that you can break American law to come here illegally, drop a kid and then I, as a taxpayer, will be forced to feed not only that kid, but the parents also. 69% of illegals in New York state who have a kid receive government benefits. How much harder do I need to work to feed these people so that I have the "humanity" you speak of Mike? Our corrupt government that allows an unrestricted drug trade with Mexico and also exports weapons for the drug gangs to use(see Obamas Fast and Furious program) has pretty much wrecked what civilization Mexico had. Maybe your "humanity" should be used to fix that problem.

Wisconsin  |  September, 23, 2012 at 12:55 PM

Ken, the same thing can be said of the indiginous population as well. It is the growth of the welfare state that has been raising particular cain with agriculture. Drop a kid and poor single mom is good to go for 20 or more years if the kid goes on to college,... for free. The degradation of our traditional family values has also allowed the fathers of those kids to do whatever he did over and over and over. In a way you do raise a good point Ken. Why are we doing all of this? Why farm in the first place? To feed an world that doesn't want anything to do with us? To raise a family that we hope will follow us one day? I milk cows and I know this a good way to live. Before I wait for the answers I would like to recieve I say Thank you to Ed for his service to our country. And Sir, you are not dumb by any measure. You know what you know and you know it well.

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