As Congress finally finished up its work on a farm bill, agriculture groups this week began to beat the drum for reform to immigration policies, especially in light of President Obama's call for immigration reform in his State of the Union address.
Following the president's speech more than 70 of the largest agriculture groups in the country joined in a Partnership for a New American Economy and planned a month-long campaign in the nation's capitol and in various states to push Congress toward comprehensive immigration reform.
Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation — one of the groups involved in that effort — said he appreciated President Obama's call to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
"Many farmers rely on an immigrant labor force, and, without reform, growers will begin to plant less labor-intensive crops or go off shore," he said.
Farm Bureau is urging Congress to pass an agriculture labor program with both short- and long-term stability, Stallman said.
"It's a way to keep our experienced workforce, while making sure we have access to a legal workforce through a streamlined and flexible guest worker program in the future. Simply put, either we import our labor or we import our food."
The Agriculture Workforce Coalition, the American Farm Bureau Federation, and more than 70 of the largest American agriculture groups formed the Partnership for a New American Economy to launch an agriculture campaign to push efforts to enact immigration reform this year.
Organizers said the campaign will stress the agriculture sector's critical need for immigration reform with activities online and on the ground, in Washington DC and in key Congressional districts.
The effort started with a Capitol Hill Briefing on Feb. 5, where Congressional staff members were to hear from farmers and ranchers about the need for immigration reform.
The campaign's organizers planned to release new research on labor shortages; throughout the month, farmers and ranchers were on board to tell their stories through farm tours, social and traditional media, videos and community events for members of Congress in their districts.
Key points the campaign will make:
· Agricultural employers reported more than $300 million in losses in 2010 because of worker shortages;
· Immigrant workers make up approximately 80 percent of hired labor on American farms.
· Two million people are hired each year to work on American farms, and each of these workers supports two to three other employees downstream in jobs like sales, marketing, and transportation. Without immigration reform, many of these valuable jobs will leave the country and never return.
· Eliminating immigrant labor would increase food prices for American consumers: A 2012 Texas A&M University study found that farms using immigrant labor supply more than three-fifths of the milk in the country. Without immigrant labor, the number of dairy farms would drop by 4,532, reducing milk production by 29.5 billion pounds and raising retail milk prices by an estimated 61 percent.
Chuck Conner, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, serves as the spokesman for the Agriculture Workforce Coalition, set up to give agriculture a unified voice in seeking immigration reform for farmers, ranchers and growers across the country.
"This partnership is especially timely, with the House Republican caucus recently releasing their principles on immigration reform and recognizing in them the labor needs of agriculture," he said.
Tom Nassif, president and CEO of Western Growers, said the recent release of those Republican immigration standards and the highlighting of agriculture's needs, shows that it might be the right time for Congress to reform "our broken immigration system."
Fruit and vegetable growers said immigration reform is an urgent priority for them. "Our fresh fruit and vegetable members are facing labor shortages now, and literally cannot afford to wait any longer," said Tom Stenzel, president and CEO of United Fresh Produce Association.
"Across the country, crops are rotting on the vine because our farmers don't have the workers they need," said John Feinblatt, Chair of the Partnership for a New American Economy.
"Our choice is clear," he said. "We either bring in our workers or we bring in our food. The American agriculture industry depends on getting this right."
Their campaign — the #IFarmImmigration month — is part of the #IAmImmigration campaign to engage industries across the economy that want to fix the immigration system.
To learn more about the campaign, visit iamimmigration.org.