Utah farmers, ranchers want immigration reforms to meet labor needs

Published: Sunday, Oct. 27 2013 11:04 p.m. MDT

Lino Aquino herds sheep Friday, Oct. 18, 2013. Area growers and producers sound off about what's good and not so good about current work visas for agricultural workers.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

PARK CITY — Lino Aquino makes it look easy.

Riding horseback, he and seven dogs make quick work of moving 1,200 sheep down a gentle slope in Summit County.

As the dogs gather the stragglers, Aquino waits on a hillside.

"If you're just patient and take your time, the sheep calm down and he can put them where he wants them. The sheep get used to him," said Brian Bitner, whose family runs about 6,000 head of sheep in Utah, Idaho and Montana.

Aquino, who is Peruvian, has worked for the Bitners on a series of three-year contracts since 1999. He has entered the United States on H-2A visas, which permit him to stay in the country up to three years to herd sheep. The permits must be renewed annually.

"He's a good guy. He knows what he's doing," Bitner said.

But training herders takes time. Although most come from rural Peru, some have not ridden horses or worked with herding dogs, Bitner said. Some don't know how to drive, so it is a challenge to prepare them to haul water to the sheep wintering on the west desert.

"If one guy can teach another, then you end up OK," Bitner said.

The sheep industry has exemptions to the H-2A visa that are not available to other livestock producers, dairy operators and growers. Those industries must abide to the strict limits of the farm worker visa, which is intended to provide a workforce for temporary, seasonal work.

Workers who enter the country under that program can work for one employer doing one type of work. Typically, a worker may remain in the country for 10 months but is supposed to return to his or her native country.

That arrangement doesn't suit the labor needs of the dairy industry, says Brad Bateman, whose family dairy farm in Utah County milks 6,800 cows three times a day.

Dairy farming is neither seasonal nor temporary, which is something Bateman said he hopes Congress will acknowledge in the immigration reform debate in Washington, D.C.

"The thing we have to keep in mind as we talk about this issue and look at it, it's not about cheap labor. It's about labor — period. It's about getting a workforce, Bateman said during a recent farm tour offered by the Utah Farm Bureau.

Whether it's harvesting fruit, herding sheep or working in processing plants, most agriculture jobs in the United States are not filled by Americans.

Yet federal law requires producers to advertise to domestic workers first, although they rarely last long on the job.

"I think the record we have had is one worked all day once," said Robert McMullin, a Payson fruit farmer who grows sweet cherries, peaches, apples, nectarines and pluots.

When growers like McMullin cannot assemble enough workers, crops go to waste in the fields. This summer, it was the sweet cherries.

A shortage of farm laborers also affects consumers, says Randy Parker, CEO of the Utah Farm Bureau.

All segments of agriculture need a productive, efficient workforce that meets their labor need throughout the production cycle, he said.

"All of those things play into abundance, quality and cost for the American consumer," Parker said.

McMullin said he would like Congress to change immigration laws to give workers and producers more flexibility.

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