CNN’s recent presidential town hall in Wisconsin offered a chance to hear Republican candidates’ thoughts on agricultural issues, in particular immigration, labor and trade.
The first agriculture-related question came from Jason Vorpahl, a dairy farmer from Random Lake, Wis., where he milks 2,800 cows on the farm his great-grandparents started in the 1800s.
“Most farms in the dairy industry cannot find American-born workers to milk the cows and take care of them. The only ones willing to do this hard work are the Latino immigrants (and) if we didn't have them for eight hours, there would be a crisis across the country in our industry,” Vorpahl said.
Vorpahl currently supports Senator Ted Cruz and asked the candidate about his short-term and long-term goals for stabilizing the immigrant workforce.
Cruz initially didn’t address the question on immigration. Instead, he talked about the controversial Waters of the U.S. regulation and its impact on farmers. “I think we need a president and we need an administration (which) takes the burdens off farmers so that it is easier to do your job, which is incredibly important,” Cruz told Vorpahl.
On immigration, Cruz said he understands that it can be hard to find people who want to work in agriculture. “You know, I'll tell you, though, one of the consequences of our immigration system right now (is that) when we've got 12 million people who are here illegally, (it has the effect of) driving down wages for Americans across this country,” Cruz said.
Cruz talked about an article he had read in the Wall Street Journal discussing the impact of Arizona’s anti-immigration laws on farm labor in the state.
According to Cruz, a jalapeño pepper grower named Rob Knorr recently faced a labor shortage because many migrant workers were avoiding Arizona. Wages then rose 15% for Arizona farmworkers from 2010 to 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Today, the wages paid by Knorr have risen to $20 per hour for equipment operators and $13 per hour for field hands. He has planted fewer acres and is looking to further mechanizing his harvest techniques. He’s also turned to community colleges to recruit the skilled labor he needs to operate machinery.
“Our immigration laws should benefit American workers. That should be the focus of immigration laws,” Cruz said.
If elected president, Cruz said he plans to secure the border and end illegal immigration.
“In the agriculture world, I think the first option should be trying to find American workers. Now that may mean wages come up. It may mean that we have to use more tools. We've seen in Arizona that has happened,” Cruz said.
If American labor can’t be found, then legal immigrant labor should the way to address that shortage, Cruz added.
Later during the town hall, dairy farmer John Pagel took the microphone to ask Donald Trump his thoughts on immigration.
Pagel, who owns Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy, a 5,500-cow operation in Kewaunee, Wis., pointed out that the dairy industry is Wisconsin’s “No. 1 economic driver” and there are 10,000 dairies in the state.
“With there being such a strong economic driver, if we don't have a strong immigration policy that will give us the opportunity to keep the ones (immigrant employees) that we have and provide a vehicle to bring new ones in from Mexico legally...,” Pagel said.
Before Pagel finished his statement, Trump interrupted to point out word “legally” in the question.
The dairy farmer continued, asking: “Can you develop a policy that will give us that, give us the people that we have here to stay here and do the jobs--and create a policy that can bring people in to fill the jobs?”
Trump answered the question by comparing Wisconsin’s dairy industry to the grape-growing industry in California. Trump did note many grape pickers are more seasonal than dairy work, which typically results in a different immigration status than many dairy employees.
“Right now we have illegal immigration (and) we have illegals all over the country. We have at least 11 million. Some people think it could be 31 million,” Trump said. “It's somewhere in between. It's probably 12 (million), 13 (million), 14 (million)--we have no idea what we're doing.”
He said that those who enter the U.S. to work need to do it legally through a visa program.
“It's going to work out beautifully,” Trump told Pagel. “You will not be affected. We don't want to affect businesses. We want to grow businesses.”
Trump also addressed trade, saying agriculture sends a lot of goods to other countries and some countries won’t accept goods because of spoilage. “Yet we accept their goods without tax, without anything,” he said, adding: “We are going to straighten out our trade policy so that you're going to get a lot more business.”
Ohio Governor John Kasich, who is still in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, was not asked about ag issues specifically, but he did discuss immigration during the town hall.
“We have to protect the border,” he said. “That is a given.”
Kasich said there should be a guest worker program to allow seasonal workers, like fruit and vegetable pickers, to return home at times when their labor is not needed in the U.S.
For those immigrants who have come to the U.S. illegally, but have not committed any crimes in the country, Kasich offers a path to legal status. It would involve paying fines and back taxes. “They can have a path to legalization, not a path to citizenship,” Kasich said.
Under his plan, immigrants would not be allowed to enter the country illegally and if a currently illegal immigrant can’t be legalized, he or she would need to go back to his or her home country.
Kasich believes his plan for addressing illegal immigration can pass muster with Congress and the American people. “I think that is a reasonable solution to this problem of immigration,” he said.
The Ohio governor also tackled the topic of trade. During the town hall, Jim Walker, who is vice president of CASE IH NAFTA in Franklin, Wis., asked how Kasich might “engage in diplomacy that won’t hurt global manufacturing businesses.”
Kasich’s answer: “We need to have open and free trade.”
Open, free trade with Japan, for example, helped increase innovation and competition in the automobile industry, according to Kasich, who also supports the Trans Pacific Partnership.
“Agriculture depends on exports more than about any other industry in this country,” Kasich said.