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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.

"We would really like to have a program that is easier and more user-friendly for us — something that would be more flexible and allows us to trade (workers) with the dairy guys, with the floral guys," he said. "We'd like to not only be able to use them in the field. We'd like to use them in the processing plant."

The exemptions granted the sheep industry under the H-2A program make it the envy of other agriculture industries "because it works," says Larry Williams, attorney for the Western Range Association.

While many agriculture industries would benefit from changes to the farm visa program, it is important that sheep ranchers not lose ground in the process.

"We have a very small part of the industry under the H-2A program. We're a little concerned about gross caps because of the size of our industry and the needs that we have. We might just get run over," Williams said.

Now that the government shutdown has ended, Parker said he hopes Congress will once again focus on immigration reform. He and other business interests in the state are lobbying members of Utah's congressional delegation about immigration reforms they need.

“Our standpoint is, let’s just get something done that makes sense. If we have to tweak it as we go forward, let’s do that," he said.

From a national perspective, the American Farm Bureau Federation wants comprehensive immigration reform to include “an adjustment of status for experienced but unauthorized agricultural workers who currently reside in the United States,” according to a position paper published in September.

This would include an obligation to work in agriculture for a set number of years. Once that requirement is met, workers could seek permanent legal status.

The federation also seeks an uncapped agricultural worker visa program that will “ensure agriculture’s future legal workforce” and give workers and producers alike more flexibility.

Sheep ranchers like Bitner agree that other industries would benefit from more flexibility, but he notes there are costs associated with maintaining a workforce.

Bitner provides his herders room and board as required under current H-2A regulations. The herders live in campers among the sheep they tend and they send their grocery lists to Bitner via iPhones.

Aquino has solar power to light his camper, propane to heat it, and depending upon where the camper is parked and the antenna is aimed, he can watch television to help break up the monotony and loneliness. He keeps in touch with friends and family via Facebook and other social networks.

The toughest aspect of the job is Utah's harsh weather, Aquino said. "The winter is a little cold. It's a little hard."

While he's separated from his family for three-year stints, herding has enabled him to purchase a home for his family in Peru and pay college tuition for his eldest son, who is studying administration and marketing, Aquino said.

"(The herders) do pretty amazingly well. I've never had one smoke, and most of them don't drink. They're good, honest, pretty decent people," Bitner said.

Parker agrees.

"The reality is they’re not jobs Americans are willing to do. Let’s give them the help they need to provide the service they’re willing to do, and quite honestly, they do a pretty darned good job at it," he said.

The Utah Compact, which urges treating immigrants with humanity and dignity, provides a good framework for the debate on the national level, Parker said.

"Let’s get that done on a national basis because it is the federal government’s obligation and responsibility to do it," he said, "so let’s get it done. Let’s quit playing around.”

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com

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