Government regulations, foreign competition and immigrant farm labor were key issues discussed without much resolution Thursday morning at an agriculture town hall meeting hosted by Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian and state Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross.
A crowd of some 125 ranchers and farmers filled the Edwards Barn on the Nipomo Mesa to hear what Achadjian and Ross had to say about issues facing their livelihoods. The hottest of those issues — nationally, statewide and locally — is farm labor, specifically labor performed by illegal immigrants.
Prior to the meeting, Achadjian, R-San Luis Obispo, explained his feelings about illegal immigrants working in Central Coast fields.
“As an immigrant, I went through the (citizenship) process. How can we legalize farm workers for an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work?”
Later in the meeting he told the audience, many of whom were members of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties’ farm bureaus, that the proposed federal program of e-verifying the citizenship of laborers — requiring employers to do the verifying — in one case led to only six people applying for jobs on an area farm. All of them quit after six hours due to the grueling nature of the work.“These people are not taking jobs from our kids,” he said.
The issue is one of national significance. For example, apples are going unpicked in Washington, although that state is considering using prisoners for the job. Alabama, with stringent illegal immigrant statutes, is also facing major labor shortages in its fall harvest.
Ross said that a sweep was made during Lodi’s grape harvest and 145 individuals were taken out of the fields. “And that chilled another 650 laborers who could have worked in the orchards.”
Although illegal immigration is a federal issue, Achadjian and Ross both said they would like to see immigrants issued certificates that would allow the laborers to come and go seasonally.
“It would be almost like a visa,” Achadjian said, “and it would eliminate the underground operations” of human trafficking.
“I don’t support illegals and would ship them all out and make sure they can’t come back, but farmers need a labor force,” he said.
Because the issue is federal in nature, Achadjian urged those in attendance to make their voices heard with their congressional representatives.
Both Achadjian and Ross called for common sense concerning government regulation of water and land use.
Achadjian said he had introduced a bill that called for any new such regulations to also outline the economic impacts of the rules. The bill died in committee.
The third issue voiced at the town hall dealt with foreign markets.
Achadjian said that if the immigrant labor issue isn’t resolved, and more and more regulations place a stranglehold on those working the land, imported foods — grown and harvested in countries that don’t have similar regulatory environments as the U.S. — would dominate the American market.
“In the future, do we want to be dependent on foreign food like foreign oil?” he asked.