Farming leaders wary of reform

A sizable number of workers on American farms are in the country illegally, but if they weren’t here virtually no one would pick the crops, a group of local and state agriculture leaders said Thursday during a news conference at the San Luis Obispo County Farm Bureau.

Congress and the media need to stop trivializing the issue with what one speaker described as a sound-bite approach and deal with immigration reform comprehensively and seriously.

If they don’t, consequences could be dire for American farmers, workers, and consumers on several fronts, not the least of which would be the rising cost of farm products as agriculture moves offshore.

“If you like foreign oil, you’ll love foreign food,” said Alex Ott, executive director of the California Apple Commission.

Ott and others spoke on behalf of a movement called Speak Up for America’s Food, which describes itself as seeking “a stable and legal farm work force, (and) greater food security and independence over our food supply, while keeping jobs and economic activity right here in the United States.” 

Speaker after speaker said America’s agricultural situation is growing dire, political leaders are saying and doing little or nothing that is helpful, and the American public, especially in non-farm states, is clueless about the gravity of the problem.

The discussion has been “oversimplified in 30-second sound bites,” by politicians, said wine-grape grower Bill Grant of Paso Robles. Grant called suggestions to build a wall across the border “insane.”

Grant and others said Congress needs to find a way to make farm workers legal while they are working here.

They criticized a system being proposed in Congress called E-Verify, under which employers would have to prove that workers they hire are in the country legally. There have been efforts to cull illegal employees, but E-Verify goes after the people who hire them.

E-Verify is potentially devastating, speakers said. Recent attempts to crack down on illegal workers in similar ways have already harmed employers and owners alike in states like Alabama, Georgia and Washington, they said.

“No one is going to walk into the vineyard and pick the grapes” if they know they might be deported, Grant said. He said farm laborers are sophisticated in tracking such moves and will leave the state if the heat gets too high.

That has already happened in some states, Grant said, and farmers cannot find people to gather the crops.

Speakers also attacked the mythology surrounding farm workers.

First, Grant said, they are not taking American jobs, as many in the public believe.

Picking crops is hard work that requires specialized skills, he said.

“No American citizens are going to apply for those jobs,” Grant said, not only because they lack the qualifications, but also because the work is difficult, the pay is low and the jobs are seasonal.

In addition, Grant said, farm workers pay taxes and spend money locally.

Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, R-San Luis Obispo, a long-time supporter of agriculture, said those working the fields are “honest immigrants who come to make a living here.”

Finally, Grant said, many immigrants who work on farms here send tens of billions of dollars to Mexico and other countries where their families and homes are — so much money that it constitutes a large chunk of the home country’s national economy.

He said policy makers should think about the possible effect on America if Mexico were to become “more economically distraught” if such income dries up. “Is that good for the U.S.?”