U.S. ag secretary discusses farm workers in visit to Cobleskill

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Jul. 16—United States Department of Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack led a panel discussion about the lack of farm workers in New York state and the Farm Workforce Modernization Act on Friday morning at SUNY Cobleskill.

"It's great to be back," Vilsack said. "I was the commencement speaker a few years ago and was impressed by the array of programs offered."

Vilsack said when he attended Hamilton College and then lived in Richfield Springs while attending Albany Law School, he was surrounded, "by some of the best farms in the state."

Vilsack said the COVID-19 pandemic showed the country the importance of the food industry. "Agriculture makes up 5 to 10% of the entire U.S. economy and 15% of the workforce. It's a major industry and the most significant. We are lucky to live in a food-secure nation," he said. "Many nations around the world cannot say that. The major issue is a shortage in the workforce, whether it's on the farms or in the processing facilities."

Most of people on the panel talked about the shortage of farm workers in New York state and the need for more migrant workers, especially for the dairy and livestock industries. They said the migrant worker system doesn't address year-round migrant employment. The H-2A, or temporary agricultural employment of foreign workers program, is administered by the U.S. Department of Labor, and allows for temporary or seasonal work visas, according to the department of labor's website.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which was passed by the House of Representatives in 2020 and 2021 was cosponsored by Congressman Antonio Delgado, D-Rhineback, who invited Vilsack to tour his district.

"Our immigration system is broken," Vilsack said. "We need stability in the system. There are 2.2 million farm workers in the country and 75% of those are immigrants. Fifty-one percent are documented or have green cards, 49% are undocumented. Of those immigrants, 83% are Hispanic. They work hard on these farms. They work six to seven days a week, eight to 10 hours per day. They work to support their family at home."

Delgado said he backed the bipartisan legislation in the House because, "I don't think people realize the significant contribution these workers make to the farming industry. I represent the eighth most rural congressional district in the nation. There are 5,000 farms in my district and 96 to 97% of them are family owned and operated. A lot of the farmers I have talked to have raised the issue of finding good workers. This legislation is a way to help fix the problem."

In a March 18 media release, Delgado said the Farm Workforce Modernization Act would: establish a program for workers to earn legal status through continued employment; reform the H-2A program to provide more flexibility for employers while ensuring protections for the workers; provide up to 20,000 H-2A visas per year for dairy and other year-round agricultural employers; focus on modifications to make the program more user-friendly and establish a nationwide E-Verify system for all agricultural employees.

Rick Zimmerman, who was representing the Northeast Dairy Producers Association and New York vegetable growers, told of a vegetable grower in the western part of the state who put out an ad for 350 seasonal workers. "He received zero responses from the domestic workforce and had to apply for the H-2A program," Zimmerman said. "One of the arguments is that these workers take the place of American workers. This is not true. The dairy industry is very dependent on the guest worker program. The dairy industry stepped up last year during the COVID pandemic to ensure nutritious food made it to consumers."

Fourth-generation dairy farmer Nathan Chittenden talked about trying to find workers for his farm. He said when his grandfather started Dutch Hollow Farm in Schodack Landing 45 years ago, it was easy for him to find employees in the local community. He said that changed when his parents owned the farm and now while he owns the farm.

"I was lucky as I live in the middle of apple orchards and there is no shortage of migrant workers," he said. "There are eight family members and nine non-family workers on the farm, but they might just as well be family because we work hard beside one another. It's hard for them because they only get to see their families on their cellphones. They're terrified to go back home because they don't know if they'll be able to come back."

Two migrant workers, Mayer Garcia and Izaias Santiz, were on the panel and both said they would like to be able to visit their families in Mexico and come back to work in the U.S. without having to go through the application process again.

Santiz, 19, said he came to the U.S. to work at age 16 to support his family back home who are living in poverty. He said he works on a dairy farm and would like to continue to do so. Garcia said he also came to America to work to help get his family out of poverty in Mexico. He said he was happy to work to "help produce the food you all consume."

State Agriculture Commissioner Richard Ball, of Schoharie, told about getting a job out of high school at a local farm. "There were 73 workers there and the other 72 spoke Spanish," he said. "I get around New York state frequently and everywhere I go, I hear that we do not have enough workers. I encourage young people of all kinds to get into agriculture."

Julie Marie Suarez, associate dean at Cornell University, gave statistics about the workforce. "There are 56,000 year-round and seasonal farm workers," she said.

Vilsack said he would be testifying in front of the U.S. Senate next week about the bill and said he would encourage senators to pass it.

Vicky Klukkert, staff writer, can be reached at vklukkert@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7221.

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