The time may be right for true immigration reform that will help dairy farmers with their labor needs now and into the future.
That's the word from the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF), which is spearheading a new coalition including a broad cross-section of farm organizations.
In a press call Wednesday morning (Jan. 16) members of the new Agriculture Workforce Coalition (AWC) said their goal is to secure legislation that ensures America's farmers will have access to a stable and willing workforce.
Jerry Kozak, CEO and president of NMPF, said his organization has been working on this issue for nearly a decade and finally it appears that the stars and planets are aligning in the political universe to get such a measure signed into law.
"This is a vexing public health issue and we have an absolute need to reform immigration laws," he said. "It appears it is now achievable after the impact of the November elections on the Republicans," he said, referring to the importance of the Hispanic voter base.
"There's also interest in a 'legacy' kind of achievement on the part of President Obama and we see continued pressure from the business community, including dairy farmers. All of these things are aligning."
The goal of the AWC is to seek legislation that ensures America's farms, ranches and other agricultural operations have access to a stable and skilled workforce.
The newly formed coalition includes 11 farmer and farm worker groups and it was formed in order to make sure that the needs of agricultural employers are heard as this issue moves forward.
"There is light at the end of this political tunnel," Kozak told reporters during the press call.
"After seven years of hard but fruitless work on this issue, dairy farmers have a rare opportunity in 2013 to achieve a comprehensive solution to the immigration policy challenge. We see our participation in this coalition as the best chance to shape federal policies that will ensure farm employers' continued access to both existing and future dairy workers," said Kozak.
The AWC has been formed to move beyond previous immigration reform efforts because existing programs and previous proposals have proved unworkable. The group is putting forward a framework on which to base a future policy.
It includes both an earned adjustment in status for current experienced farm workers, and a program to ensure that producers continue to have access to a workforce as current agricultural employees move on.
Kozak said that the framework proposed by AWC is intended to ensure that it meets the needs of all of agriculture - both those employers with seasonal labor needs and those who provide year-round employment opportunities, such as dairy farms.
The existing H2A visa program is unworkable for dairy farmers, he said, because it is intended to serve employers of seasonal workers. Attempting to make that program workable for dairy employers hasn't worked.
The political climate, he said, provides an opportunity to do something more comprehensive, through this unique coalition.
The founding members of the AWC include American Farm Bureau Federation, American Nursery & Landscape Association, Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, National Council of Agricultural Employers, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, USA Farmers, U.S. Apple Association, United Fresh Produce Association, Western Growers Association, Western United Dairymen and the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform as well as NMPF.
Mike McCloskey is acting as the chairman of NMPF's participation in this task force. A dairy farmer who has lived and worked in Mexico as a veterinarian, has a complex understanding of the issues involved, said Kozak.
McCloskey said there is strong consensus on this issue among dairy farmers - even farmers with smaller herds recognize that a Hispanic workforce is critical to the survival of the U.S. dairy industry.
"As a businessman, it comes down to ensuring that I'm able to produce a product," he said during the press call. "Dairy depends heavily on foreign labor and news on the immigration front has been discouraging in recent years."
Efforts to reform immigration law in 2004 and 2007 failed, he said, and in recent years enforcement actions have been beefed up. The current legislative session offers the best chance in years to "tackle this issue once and for all."
The task force is focusing on what the dairy industry needs today and in the future, and making an effort to unify the industry "so we can speak with one voice, working toward a common position so we can move forward," he added.
Every dairy farmer understands that there is a shortage of U.S. workers willing to do farm work, he said, and the dairy industry benefits from reliable, skilled, hardworking employees and for many farms, Hispanic workers fill that bill.
McCloskey said this issue isn't just one of economic health for U.S. agriculture, it's also a benefit to American consumers, who are beneficiaries of an abundant, safe and homegrown food supply.
"Not having a reliable workforce means that U.S agriculture will see plant and animal production move to foreign shores. In those countries food safety, worker safety and environmental controls are not the same as they are here," he said.
Not having a reliable workforce and pushing food production offshore is also an issue of national security.
"I've stood on many farms in emerging countries and what I've seen would not be acceptable to US consumers," McCloskey added.
Kozak said the framework as envisioned by the AWC would help all producers of agricultural products. It would help workers that are here now and those that will come to the United States legally in the future.
The AWC's core framework will help current and future needs of dairy but doesn't just look at present employment, he said, it moves beyond the problems of the H2A program and the Ag Jobs bill.
For current workers with no documentation, the proposal ties their remaining here to future commitment and past employment in agriculture. It also has provisions for filling new positions as workers move on.
The new program would eventually supercede H2A, Kozak believes, and it would provide all kinds of agricultural businesses with a way to fill their labor needs.
"These are the core principles that can't be negotiated but details would need to be worked out as the process goes forward," he said.
Kozak and McCloskey have seen over the years that immigration as a wedge issue between small farms and larger farms has disappeared. National Milk is an organization that has worked to eliminate the kind of biases that have existed in the past, Kozak added.
McCloskey said that farms with two or three Hispanic laborers are finding that they are even more at risk than farms with much larger labor forces and this compels them to favor immigration reform.
"This issue has changed dramatically." Farms with as few as 150 or 250 cows enjoy their Hispanic workers, he said, and they see how incredibly hard these people work. "I don't believe that there is that divide anymore between small farms and large farms. Instead there's a total recognition of how important these workers are."
For McCloskey one of the other major benefits of comprehensive immigration reform is that workers now helping produce U.S. food "will no longer remain in the shadows."
American agriculture as we know it would not be possible without the contributions of more than 1.5 million hired workers each year, the men said.
Additional information on the AWC can be found on its website: www.agworkforce coalition.org.
Kozak said the coalition is already working with two Senators on the potential for introduction of a bill into Congress.