Ag Chief Vilsack urges immigration bill passage

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, shown making remarks July 10 at the U.S. Agricultural Export Development Council Attache Seminar in Alexandria, Va., said in a conference call Tuesday that passage of an immigration reform bill is critical to the farm economy. (Lance Cheung/USDA)

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, shown making remarks July 10 at the U.S. Agricultural Export Development Council Attache Seminar in Alexandria, Va., said in a conference call Tuesday that passage of an immigration reform bill is critical to the farm economy. (Lance Cheung/USDA)

WASHINGTON — Congress is not in session, but U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says immigration reform needs to be one of the first orders of business following its August recess.

Vilsack, in a conference call with reporters Tuesday morning, said immigration reform plays a key role in helping the agriculture section create certainty — and sustainability — in the area of labor.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “today American agriculture is faced with a situation where producers are reducing and contracting what they are able to grow or actually moving operations outside of the country in some cases, simply because they do not have the assurance and security of an adequate work force. That’s why comprehensive immigration reform is so important.”

Georgia, Vilsack said, reviewed the impact on its $7 billion farm community. “And the reality today is many Georgia farmers are seeing crops that they are planting not being harvested, or scaling back the amount of production, simply because they have an uncertain work force to pick and to harvest these products. That’s costing the state of Georgia roughly 3,200 job opportunities and roughly $320 million annually in lost economic opportunity.

If nothing changes, he said, farmers will be forced to continue reducing operations or find themselves unable to harvest what they have grown.

Vilsack said the Senate version of the bill solves many of those problems. It provides opportunity for stable work force, allows farm workers who are working in a “shadow economy” the chance to earn citizenship following payments of fines and taxes. That work force would be supplemented in the Senate legislation by a guest-worker provision that allows growers to bring in workers to fill gaps for needed manpower. Vilsack said the E-Verify system would be used to track guest workers’ when they enter and leave the country. There are also strong border security measures in the bill, he said.

That, he said, would keep the United States from continuing to face the problems with its current “broken system” in which millions of people are in the U.S. without proper authorization.

If lawmakers hear from people in their districts, they may come back to Washington after the August recess with a sense of a need to get things done, Vilsack said.

House may take approach of a series of bills instead of just one, Vilsack said, “but at the end of the day, they need a vehicle to pass in the House and to allow that vehicle to be used as a basis for discussions with the Senate to work out whatever differences may exist.”

“It will also stimulate the economy and grow the American economy,” Vilsack said, adding the Congressional Budget Office calculated that the growth from immigration reform over a 20-year period would reduce the federal deficit by $850 billion. “That’s a reduction in the deficit without raising anyone’s taxes or cutting anyone’s services,” Vilsack said.

“Our hope and belief is that Congress, and particularly the House of Representatives, needs to come back from its August break focused on trying to get this job done, getting this bill passed,” he said, adding the differences between the Senate and House legislation would have to be worked out.

Jason Berry, owner of Blueberry Farms of Georgia in Baxley, joined Vilsack on the conference call. Berry was one of eight business leaders who met with President Barack Obama in June.

Georgia is known as the Peach State, but blueberries are the top-valued fruit produced in Georgia. Blueberry production makes up 38.89 percent of all fruits and nuts produced, generating $254.85 million. Peaches are 6.8 percent of that production, with $44.5 million in revenue. Pecans lead the fruit and nuts category, comprising 48.8 percent.

According to the 2011 Georgia Farm Gate Value Report for the University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, the value of fruits and nuts produced in Georgia was $655.26 million.

Berry said that when the Georgia Legislature passed House Bill 87, which cracked down on undocumented workers in the state, it resulted in a severe farm labor crunch. Labor shortages continued in 2012 and this year, though they were not as bad as 2011, he said.

“What we’re faced with currently if comprehensive immigration reform is not passed and we’re not given the opportunity to have a workable guest worker program in particular,” he said, “I think that we’ll continue to see farms in Georgia particularly reduce their size, reduce their output and, as a result, reduce the money coming into our state economy.”

With the rainy summer, Berry said, his operation’s yields would have been better had he had enough workers available at the right times.

Second-generation immigrants aren’t seeing farm labor as desirable, he said. “The guest worker part of this bill is extremely important going forward,” he said.

While U.S. producers are pulling back because of uncertainty, foreign competitors such as Brazil “aren’t standing pat,” Vilsack said, adding it compromised export opportunities for U.S. growers.

Berry also said that, despite popular opinion, farm labor is skilled. “We have opportunities to expand in various crops in this state,” he said, “however, it’s difficult to put your money on the line when you have that uncertainty. It’s hard to grow our operations and meet the demands of a growing population.”

All produce is perishable and timing is critical on picking. “You can’t just take any guy off the street and have him be a good vegetable picker or blueberry picker,” Berry said. “A lot of people look at it as a dirty job, a backbreaking job that anybody could get out there and grunt their way through it. But that’s not the case.”

In 2011, Berry advertised through Georgia Agriculture Department for pickers and attracted workers, who were paid according to their production. While a skilled picker can pick $18-$20 worth in a hour, those new to the job were only gathering $2-$3 worth. Since they had to be paid at least minimum wage, Berry said, he lost money on the low-volume pickers, raising his cost per pound to harvest.

“We would love to fill the jobs with American workers, but I just don’t think that’s the reality or a possibility for that to happen,” he said.