Republican New York Congressman John Faso hosted U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue Thursday at two Columbia County farms. Farmers’ concerns focused on securing a reliable workforce and how to keep dairy farmers afloat.
Secretary Perdue, Faso and others ambled down to the sorting shed at Altobelli Family Farm in Kinderhook, where workers were sorting corn.
Perdue sunk his teeth into an ear of corn. The variety? American Dream. The concern, says owner John Altobelli, is that without addressing a labor shortage and making farming attractive for new generations, the dream is fading.
“It’s an older generation that you see on the farms, and the next younger generation isn’t taking over because the work’s too hard and the rules, regulations, there’s a lot of things that go with it that the next generation don’t want to deal with,” Altobelli says. “So it’s a big issue.”
Altobelli’s 240-acre farm grows corn, tomatoes, squash and apples, supplying online grocer FreshDirect, for one. But securing the labor to help get his produce to market is difficult.
“The program that we’re in, the H-2A labor program, just trying to revamp it maybe a little bit, make it a little easier on us to get help because it’s hard to get local help, seasonal,” says Altobelli.
Perdue agrees the temporary agricultural visa program known as H-2A needs an overhaul.
“Agriculture needs a legal, stable guest worker program in order to harvest these apples behind me, the sweet corn. These people contribute to the productivity of the American farmer in a very unique way,” Perdue says. “The issue right now over H-2A, it’s cumbersome, it’s very convoluted and very problematic for growers and unreliable, to a certain degree, over not knowing whether they’re going to get the workers or not.”
He says the department is working on two fronts, one with congressional members to get a permanent solution for an agricultural work force. Perdue says he’s also working in a regulatory manner with the Departments of Labor, Homeland Security and State.
“And we are getting rules and regulations changed hopefully by this next growing season in the spring. We’ll have a more automated type of rope coming through the portal at USDA called farmers.gov,” says Perdue. “It’s a TurboTax-type model where you put in information and it goes to these other three agencies. You won’t be harassed by saying you didn’t cross the ‘t’ the right way and you won’t be sending back forms back and forth. It’ll be there, so hopefully that’ll be an improvement.”
“And that’ll ease a lot of the work in our congressional office because we are constantly dealing with these paperwork issues with the agencies on trying to deal with these Ag visa programs,” Faso says.
Congressman Faso, a Republican from the 19th district who chimed in at the end, co-sponsored a bipartisan bill in July. He says the Ag and Legal Workforce Act would create a new agricultural guest worker program to ensure farmers have the ability to maintain a reliable workforce. Faso says there are an estimated 3 million undocumented agriculture workers.
“And what this would do, it would basically normalize their status, presuming that they have violated any law and committed a criminal offense. And they would be required to touch back in their home country or in the consulate of their home country — so, for instance, someone might be able to go to Canada for, and then come back into the United States,” says Faso. “They would have the ability, a document to, in this program, to come back into the United States which would assure that. And they’d be able to stay in the country for three years and, over that 3-year period, they’d have to touch back in their home country for a total of 60 days over the three-year period.”
He says the workers could reapply after the three years. This bill, says Faso, is the result of ongoing negotiations over immigration reform. The next stop in Columbia County was at Dutch Hollow Farm, where Perdue and Faso held a dairy roundtable. Here’s Perdue.
“Dairy and New York has a huge dairy issue and dairy industry, and they’re under a lot of duress, low milk prices, high costs and different things like that,” Perdue says. “We did this past, last week we, for the first time, bought $50 million worth of fluid milk, which typically does not happen to go to our food banks and our school programs in order to take some product off there.”
Farmers said tariffs were hitting them hard, including from Canada, adding to their already high bills.
“What I’ve said all along is that farmers have legitimate anxiety over here with the tariffs but, if what President Trump is doing I agree with,” says Perdue. “I want to make very clear, you understand that you cannot allow a competitor like China to continue to play on the international field on unlevel playing field. They’ve been cheating for years.”
“It’s like a weight-loss program. You look at me and see I can tell to lose some weight,” Perdue says. “It’s never fun on the front end. But when you’re healthier, you’re better. That’s President Trump’s goal is to get agriculture and all our American industries healthier in a free and fair trade environment.”
In July, the Trump administration said it would help farmers by offering $12 billion in aid, and Perdue says an announcement would come Monday detailing which commodities will get the help.