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The AgriTalk broadcast is done for today, but the conversation continues. AgriTalk host Mike Adams shares his thoughts and opinions on the news of the week and invites your feedback.
While Congress debates the latest immigration reform proposal, growers in states like California wonder how much longer they can wait. For them it is more than a debate, it is their livelihoods. An asparagus grower told me she has to leave part of her crop in the field because of a lack of workers. A vineyard owner told me that without significant improvement in immigration policy she isn't sure she can stay in business. Both say they can't find U.S. citizens willing to do the work. The debate has evolved over the years to where the United Farm Workers and growers are now on the same side but that may not be enough to push this bill through. Issues like amnesty and border security threaten the bill now moving through Congress and that worries many in the ag community. It should worry everyone because it could have a significant impact on our food availability and price. We have seen what happened when we became dependent on other countries for our oil and how difficult it is to break that dependence. We need to make sure that doesn't happen with our food. Ironically the first step in preventing a dependence on another country for our food may be to accept our dependence on them for our workers.
The challenge of telling agriculture’s story has gotten a lot harder for farmers in Iowa. For years, Iowa farmers had been protected from liability by a recreational use statute for injuries on their property unless willfully injuring someone. An Iowa Supreme Court ruling in February, stemming from an injury to a parent of a child on a school farm visit, changed that and states that unless the injury occurred under specific circumstances a farmer can be held liable. What’s an Iowa farmer to do? Faced with increasing criticisms and questions about food production, many farmers have opened their farms to visitors to help them understand where their food comes from. Farmers deal with risk on a daily basis but this puts them between a rock and a hard place. On one hand if they don’t allow visitors they risk losing in the court of public opinion while on the other hand if they do, they risk losing in the legal courts of the state. Common sense says if you go willingly to a place and are forewarned of possible dangers, then you assume the responsibility if an accident occurs. For many of us, the last thing on our minds in that situation would be to take someone to court. Unfortunately in today’s society, legal action is the first thing on some people’s minds. As we have seen in many other situations, personal responsibility is no longer expected or even encouraged. Instead we have become a society that blames others for our problems and expects to be rewarded for them. While this trend is not ag specific, this case alone has many repercussions. Children lose the opportunity to learn about their food, farmers lose income from recreational activities such as hunting and fishing, lack of deer hunting leads to more deer and damages including vehicle/deer collisions and insurance costs go up, just to name a few. Perhaps the state legislature will be able to resolve this matter but if not it looks like another case of a society biting the hands that feed it.
When Congress failed last year to pass a farm bill it led some(including Secretary of Agriculture) to question agriculture’s influence. While others disagreed it is a fair question to ask. Passage of a farm bill in the full Senate and the House Agriculture committee wasn’t enough to even get the bill to the House floor for a vote. As we wait to see what happens with the farm bill this year we have another test case that may help answer the question on agriculture’s influence. A group of Senators has reached an agreement on a framework for a farm worker program that would be part of a comprehensive immigration reform bill. All of the details haven’t been worked out but the proposal would provide a path to legal status for undocumented workers and set a cap of 112,000 3 year visas each year while setting a formula by which wages would increase each year with a cap and floor. Several ag and labor groups are supporting the proposal as a way to keep and attract much needed farm workers. It remains to be seen if the farm worker proposal will be part of a comprehensive plan or a separate bill. The bigger question is whether agriculture still has the clout to influence the outcome of such a politically sensitive issue or will agriculture’s interests be ignored. The answer may be an indication of things to come.
Immigration reform continues to be both elusive and divisive. Emotion and politics are an explosive combination and this issue has plenty of both. Meanwhile lost in this struggle to a lot of people is how their food supply could be impacted. Of course, most people in this country don’t spend much time thinking about where their food comes from so it’s not much of a surprise they haven’t given this much thought even if they have strong feelings on immigration. Agriculture relies heavily on migrant labor and despite feelings by many to the contrary, U.S. citizens aren’t lining up to fill those jobs. Even with high unemployment, many Americans don’t want seasonal jobs harvesting crops or the long hours working on a dairy farm. In recent years some crops have rotted in the fields and dairy operations have had a difficult time finding workers. That not only threatens farmers’ operations but pressures food prices and in some cases availability. A good farm worker program needs to be part of any immigration reform legislation that is passed not only to attract needed workers but keep them as well. Instead of fighting about losing jobs Americans don’t want, we need to focus on keeping food American do want.
It seems like some problems just won’t go away. Some may think cattle rustling only happens on those old black and white western movies and TV shows, but it is a reality in southwest Missouri. Cattlemen have seen an increase in the number of thefts in the last year and are looking at ways to stop it. Law enforcement officials can’t be everywhere all the time but they are working with cattlemen to encourage them to take all the steps they can to reduce or eliminate the thefts. Modern technology such as video surveillance and microchips can help but more and more cattlemen are going old school and returning to branding to identify their animals. Criticized by animal rights activists, some producers have cut back or stopped the practice altogether in recent years perhaps fearing consumer backlash. As we’ve seen in other livestock production debates, loss of proven practices are often costly both to producers and consumers. Current problems are often new versions of old ones. Branding won’t stop all cattle rustling but taking the option away from cattlemen could be the most costly theft of all. Sometimes the old ways are still the best.
The release of personal information on livestock and poultry producers earlier this year by EPA once again leaves agriculture in a defensive position. Responding to Freedom of Information Act requests by several activist groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council, Earth Justice and the Pew Charitable Trusts, EPA released information on livestock operations that included home addresses, phone numbers and email addresses. It’s one thing to release public information but in this case EPA seemed to go beyond what was required. The agency had refrained from such detailed releases in the past so what changed this time? Evidently even some EPA officials now admit that errors were made. While it’s possible an honest mistake was made it seems hard to believe there wasn’t more to it. It wouldn’t be the first time a government agency employee took advantage of their position to purposely advance a personal agenda. (i.e. the recent USDA memo on promoting meatless days in cafeterias) These things are usually very difficult to prove and whether intentional or not, livestock producers are left dealing with the potential consequences. When your home and your business are the same, you become more vulnerable in situations like this. Time will tell what those activist groups will do with the information. Meanwhile agriculture groups will try to keep something similar from happening again. The challenge they face, much like the question with GMO labeling, is trying to educate an uninformed public while answering the question "if you don’t have anything to hide, what’s the problem"? Accurately communicating that answer may be agriculture’s biggest challenge especially when some in our own government seem to have a different answer.