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U.S. Agriculture Secretary calls passage of immigration reform crucial for upstate NY dairy farms


Dairy farmers across upstate New York are thankful for skyrocketing demand for milk in the region, but they’re often challenged to expand production because they can’t hire enough employees to milk cows.

Immigration reform could be a solution to that problem, though, by providing a legal pathway for undocumented immigrants to work on dairy farms and seek citizenship, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Thomas J. Vilsack. During a conference call Wednesday, Mr. Vilsack said New York farmers and residents should urge members of Congress to approve immigration reform and the farm bill this fall. The House of Representatives has yet to vote on the immigration reform bill approved by the Senate in June. And Congress faces a legislative deadline of Sept. 30 to pass a new farm bill, when the bill passed in 2008 expires.

Because the state’s economy depends on support from the agriculture industry, Mr. Vilsack said, the business community at large has a stake in ensuring dairy farms have access to a sustainable labor force. According to a recent study by Regional Economic Models Inc., immigration worker programs in the Senate bill would collectively boost New York’s economic output by $3.4 billion, creating approximately 33,500 jobs in 2014.

Of the roughly 1.1 million farmworkers in New York, about 60 to 70 percent of are immigrants, Mr. Vilsack said. He said the majority of those immigrants are undocumented workers.

“Some people think immigration reform is only about people who are coming out of the shadows and earning their way to citizenship, but this is about a multigenerational agriculture industry’s ability to grow,” Mr. Vilsack said. “It has real-life concerns today for American businesses. When the dairy industry in upstate New York is negatively impacted, small towns and businesses are all negatively impacted.”

A new “W-Visa” agricultural program in the Senate bill — which would replace the H-2A program — would allow foreign workers to be employed on farms for three-year renewable stints. Workers now here illegally, however, will be required to pay fines to enroll in that program. Dairy farms that employ W-Visa workers also will be required to prove they’ve attempted to recruit Americans for jobs but were unable to fill positions locally.

“In the case of agriculture workers here illegally, they will have to pay thousands of dollars in fines before they go to the back of the line behind workers who appropriately” enter the system, Mr. Vilsack said. “Americans will have the right to fill these jobs, but when they can’t be filled, those working in the shadows today can be encouraged to come out and join the workforce.”

Another speaker during the conference call was Maureen Torrey, chairwoman of the USDA’s Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee. Ms. Torrey, who owns a 12th-generation vegetable farm west of Rochester in Elba, said a handful of dairy farms in the region are unable to hire farmworkers needed to expand milk production.

“We’ve had two new yogurt plants built within five miles in the past year,” she said. “But we have a problem because we cannot find enough people to work on dairy farms and aren’t able to expand to meet the growing demand of these plants. Banks have told at least six of these farmers they won’t finance projects unless they have a secure labor force. We need a visa program to retain our current workforce at these operations.”

Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, supports guest-worker programs in the Senate immigration reform bill. He previously said provisions for agriculture workers in the bill would provide a long-term labor force not available in the north country, and provide workers with legal papers that could eliminate the risk farmers face of being shut down for inadvertently hiring undocumented workers.

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