Agriculture officials seek access to migrant labor

Published: Sunday, Sept. 18 2011 8:55 p.m. MDT

Panel members listen to discussion during a meeting in Salt Lake City Sunday, Sept. 18, 2011. The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) is holding their annual meeting.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — At a meeting of representatives of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture from 46 states in Salt Lake City this week, one thing was clear — they need workers and they need a working, legal and efficient system that meets that need.

"(The federal guest worker programs) are severely inadequate in providing the labor force that is need for food," Utah Department of Food and Agriculture commissioner and this year's NASDA president, Leonard Blackham, said.

On Sunday, the major objective of the various state secretaries, directors and commissioners was coming up with a consensus recommendation on guest workers they are hoping will guide the federal government — with the Utah Compact serving as their foundation. The entire compact was included in a draft version of the recommendation.

Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture John Salazar praised what Utah has done.

"The beautiful thing about what Utah has done is find a compassionate way of dealing with immigrants where they can remain here and apply for guest work visas,"

The ultimate consensus recommendation will come as the result of a closed session with the representatives, who indicated they needed to work together to come up with a united stance.

"We need to speak together in this regard," Blackham said.

And Salazar said the compact provides a framework the state leaders can support.

"The compact sends a clear message to our leaders in Washington," Salazar said.

Blackham said farmers and ranchers are known for being honest, law-abiding citizens and want a clear, legal way to employ the workforce they need.

"They want to do what's right," Blackham said. "We want to employ workers who are legal and productive — we don't want to be in the position we are today, in a situation that doesn't work."

Frank Gasperini, executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, called the federal guest worker program that is currently in place, H-2A, "complicated, confusing and unpredictable." Under that system, Gasperini said, farmers are having to request workers months in advance, on average receiving them 22 days after they were requested to arrive and, consequently, losing as much as $32 million a year.

"American farms need to have workers who are willing to do the job, who are able to do the job and they need them when they need them," he said.

There are approximately 1 million to 1.5 million jobs in the agriculture industry, but the federal H-2A program only provides and places about 50,000 workers, Gasperini said. His studies showed that, of those referred from state workforce agencies, only 5 percent stayed through their contract period.

"It's hard work," Gasperini said of the labor-intensive tasks often required in the agricultural world. "So many of us had parents, grandparents and great-grandparents who did that kind of work to help their family members have an opportunity to have more lucrative, full-time work."

Many seconded this, saying the "traditional workforce" wouldn't want the jobs, no matter how much they pay, and farmers are faced with this problem all the time.

"Most of our workers are migrant workers and they have been for decades," Blackham said. "We hear about unemployment and how there are people who would fill these jobs and that's been proven untrue time and time again."

Before the closed session, Utah House Rep. Bill Wright spoke to the group about the Utah Compact, which emphasizes economy, free society and families. He said Utah's program allows employers to hire the most hardworking applicant.

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