TUPPER LAKE - Bill Owens says he would support a guest-worker program for agricultural employees.
Speaking to reporters after a forum with about 20 area farmers and cooperative extension representatives at The Wild Center Thursday afternoon, Owens said he thinks such a measure would have a reasonable chance of passing as an agricultural jobs bill and not part of a more controversial comprehensive immigration reform. He said there is a wide consensus that finding agricultural labor is a problem.
Owens made the trip with California congressman Dennis Cardoza, chairman of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Horticulture and Organic Agriculture, who agreed that a guest worker program for farm labor is needed. Cardoza gave the example of his district in the middle of California's Central Valley, which has 20 percent unemployment right now and still doesn't have enough farm labor.
U.S. Reps. Bill Owens, left, and Dennis Cardoza appear at a roundtable with North Country farmers at The Wild Center Thursday afternoon.
(Enterprise photo — Nathan Brown)
Owens said he didn't expect anything more comprehensive to pass any time soon. The U.S.-Canada border functions fairly well, Owens said, with nowhere near as many problems as at the U.S.-Mexican border and many Canadians coming here legally. But "I see the urgency in the agricultural area because it affects our district," Owens said.
Owen said he held the forum to "start the process of raising the issues you think need to be addressed from your perspective," and difficulty finding labor was one of the more frequent complaints. Several farmers said they have had problems with the current H-2A visa program, which allows foreign nationals into the country for temporary or seasonal agricultural work.
"If you don't dot all the 'I's and cross all the 'T's, they bump you back to square one," said Ralph Child, owner of the Child Farm in Malone, which specializes in potatoes and leafy greens.
Cardoza said he would like to see the next farm bill finished by December 2011, allowing farmers a year to adjust to whatever changes are made. Cardoza said the last one, which passed in 2008, didn't give farmers enough time, and didn't give federal administrators enough time to write the regulations.
"We're starting early, and we're really going to make sure we have the input of areas like this," Cardoza said.
Starting in January, Cardoza said he and others would be working "full-speed ahead" on the next one. Congress has passed 10 farm bills since 1965; they are the federal government's main vehicle for agriculture policy.
The last farm bill was the first to include organic and specialty crops, which Cardoza attributed to the strength of the New York and California delegations on the House Rules Committee. It was also the first one under which bees could be claimed as livestock.
The farmers at the roundtable, many of them specializing in areas such as beekeeping, organic produce and maple syrup, brought up a wide variety of issues, such as the need for grants for research and promotion, problems they have had with specific federal regulations, and the threats of invasive species and acid rain. They also discussed ways to encourage people to buy American products - one idea of Cardoza's was encouraging people selling American-made goods to put an American flag on them.
Owens and Cardoza started their tour of the area with a visit to Champlain Valley Specialty and Fledging Crow Farm, both in Keeseville. They went to the farmers' market at The Wild Center before the roundtable and went to the Child Farm afterward.
Contact Nathan Brown at 891-2600 ext. 26 or firstname.lastname@example.org.