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No One to Harvest the Harvest

September 19, 2012

As Congress Considers Labor Shortage in Tech Industry, It Must Also Address Shortages in Agriculture

Washington, D.C. — September and the months ahead are the height of the harvest season. Yet many fruits and vegetables are simply rotting on the vine because farmers cannot find enough people to work the fields.

While the agriculture industry struggles with a labor shortage at this critical time, Congress and the Obama administration fail to act on workable solutions. This week, Congress is expected to consider immigration legislation to alleviate a labor shortage in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. But congressional leaders also should recognize the urgent need for workforce solutions across the economic spectrum.

“America’s economy needs the skilled farmworker as much as it needs the skilled engineer. It is time Congress and the administration reach a bipartisan compromise on STEM visas, as well as legislation to make sure our nation’s crops make it to our dinner tables. If Congress is unable to act, the administration must,” said Ali Noorani, Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum.

Ralph Broetje, President of Broetje Orchards in Washington state, one of the largest privately owned orchards in the U.S., shed light on the crisis affecting farmers: “Despite the abundant harvest, asparagus growers had to leave 10 percent of their crop in the field this year due to lack of pickers. The skilled labor source that we depend on is rapidly disappearing. If Congress does not act soon, U.S. farms will move their operations to other countries that are more cost-effective and have an adequate labor supply. If you look at that apple juice label and see where it's coming from — it's already happening.”

The situation in New York underscores the workforce challenges that farmers face across the country. Lawmakers in New York, including Democratic Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand and Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, are taking steps to capitalize on the Greek yogurt boom and turn New York into the nation’s yogurt capital. But as one hand of government is seeking to spur economic growth in New York’s dairy farms, the other hand is undermining the effort. “The Department of Homeland Security has been doing the job it was hired to do. By aggressively conducting I-9 audits, they are taking away our experienced and skilled workforce,” said Maureen Torrey, Vice President of Marketing, Torrey Farms Inc., a 12th generation family farm in western New York. "The economic impact of downsizing production is loss of wages and loss of jobs, thus taking money out of the local economy,” she added.

State-based tough immigration measures are also leaving farmers without workers. Nan Stockholm Walden, J.D., Vice President and Counsel of the Arizona-based Farmers Investment Co., the largest grower and processor of pecans in the world, spoke about the business struggles in the wake of her state’s S.B. 1070 law. “Arizona’s immigration law has created a climate of fear. Our experienced workers are leaving our state and are moving to other states that don’t have these ambiguous clouds and legal sanctions hanging over the employers’ and employees’ heads. There's never been a greater need for federal action on immigration reform. If we want to be in charge of our food security and our economy, we need to support immigration reform for agriculture."

The North Carolina economy draws more than $70 billion — about 20 percent of the state’s income — from agriculture. Yet despite the essential role of agriculture in the Tar Heel State, Congress is not recognizing the urgency of addressing farm labor shortages. Larry Wooten, President of the North Carolina Farm Bureau, explains, “Our political leaders are not looking at this issue from a jobs standpoint and the impact on our economy. Both parties lack political backbone to look at this issue and stand up and say we've got to fix it."

"Right now, all across America, there's a flurry of activity on farms. And there's a flurry of activity in Congress to provide STEM visas,” said Craig J. Regelbrugge, Co-Chair of the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform. “At the end of the day, we don't just need STEM, we need STEAM — Science, Technology, Engineering, Agriculture and Math.” He added, “The safety of our food supply should not be a red or blue issue. Pro-business Republicans should be doing everything in their power to prevent U.S. farms from closing. And while we wait for bipartisan legislative action on this issue, the administration should use the tools at hand to prioritize immigration enforcement resources and safeguard our food supply. Both parties need to put politics aside and help us develop a 21st century solution for the farming industry."

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