Howard G. Buffett: 'People Ought to Care About the Border'

July 2, 2015 12:46 PM
Howard G. Buffett: 'People Ought to Care About the Border'

From presidential candidates to court rooms and state house legislatures, the immigration and border debate remains a hotly discussed topic. From the farmer's perspective, the issues typically center around finding and securing a workforce.

From above the Arizona desert, it's not hard to see the winding path of America's Southern border--an imposing metal and concrete fence now stretching for miles in both directions. But down below, this rocky terrain known as the Tucson sector is one of the most heavily traveled drug corridors in the country.

Howard G. Buffett is now a landowner caught in the middle.

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"We have drug smugglers coming across our ranch regularly. We see them going north, we see them going south. We have that intelligence," Buffett says.

His foundation now owns a ranch west of Douglas, Ariz., and is learning firsthand the challenges America's farmers and ranchers are facing.

"We have a significant drug problem in this country," says Buffett, from the ground in Arizona.  "When we have a border that's so porous that you can just--not move back and forth easily, but it can be penetrated."

It's a story he's not alone in telling. John Ladd also ranches along the border, and even with an imposing metal fence, still witnesses crossings.

"What they're doing is, they're coming in and cutting the mesh and the center post with anywhere from battery-powered grinders to chop saws, and then they bring in full-sized pickups full of marijuana," says Ladd, during a conversation he and Buffett had with Arizona's new attorney general.

In the last three years, he's counted just under 50 vehicles breach the fence along his property.

"Law enforcement is law enforcement, and protecting the border is pretty much law enforcement," Buffett says. "You don't mix that with ideas that have nothing to do with it."

What Buffett sees is that border security and immigration are two separate issues.

"Border security is border security. That, in itself, is a category," Buffett explains. "Immigration? I divide immigration into two categories: agriculture and everything else."

He says agriculture itself is an issue alone, "Because if we don't get this right, down the road all that nice lettuce, tomatoes and strawberries and all this amazing amount of diversity, value, volume and quantity, won't be so easy to get."

And that's a problem already showing up. According to a recent California Farm Bureau study, as a result of labor shortages, farmers no longer grow more than 80,000 acres of fresh produce.

"Currently, California has a 71% (labor) shortage for their intensive crop producers," says Kristi Boswell, a farm labor specialist with the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF). "We can't sustain in that environment, so we will get to the point where we're importing."  

"Instead of importing our labor, we're importing our food," Boswell adds.

Buffett agrees. "I always think about the food safety aspect of it," he says.

"If we are growing something here in the United States, we have the EPA, the USDA, the FDA and all of this regulatory oversight," he explains. "If you want to start growing lettuce, tomatoes and strawberries in other countries, they don't have the same oversight. I see that as a food safety issue."

Which is why Buffett and farm groups like AFBF are calling for agricultural immigration reform along with border security. Another Farm Bureau study says just locking down the border could have far-reaching repercussions.

"The study shows $30 to $60 billion in economic losses in ag production and a 5-6% increase in food prices," Boswell says. "So it not only affects the producer side of things, but the consumer side as well."

"The challenge with this issue is that nobody will see it tomorrow or next month," adds Buffett. "It's something that happens over years and it just erodes. The problem is, once it erodes, you can't just put it back in place."

Fences can be fixed, but right now ranchers, including Buffett, say the status quo is broken.

"Heroin use is way up, cocaine use is up, meth is way up," he says. "These are dangerous drugs. Our kids use them and people ought to care about the border. They might not have to care about people who want to get a job and send some money home. That's a different argument. But, when we have people coming across this border that hurt our kids and hurt our society, we need to stop it. We need to focus on stopping it. That, however, is not immigration."

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