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Immigration reform’s overhaul of guest-worker program is bright spot for farmers seeking workers

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Dairy farmers in the north country long have found hiring reliable farm workers challenging. But that task soon could become less daunting, thanks to a retooled guest worker program being considered by Congress as a part of a larger immigration reform.

U.S. Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, said overhauled guest-worker legislation could allow immigrant workers to stay here three to five years before having to return to their native countries; current visa programs, by contrast, allow workers to stay less than a year and are fraught with red tape.

Right now, Mr. Owens said, farmers who hire migrant workers know their work visas expire in less than a year, making them highly transient. By enabling the workers to stay here longer, he said, the proposed guest-worker program would allow farmers to count on some continuity of the workforce.

“Workers would need to stay for that period of time,” Mr. Owens said. “And if a farm can prove an established need, I think the program should be renewable.”

Mr. Owens said obtaining a reliable, sufficient workforce is a hurdle that most dairy farms here face. Farmers have difficulty expanding their businesses when they frequently need to hire local workers due to the high rate of employee turnover, requiring them to spend excessive time training new hires. Farms are reluctant to invest in expansion projects without knowing they will have enough workers to support those plans.

“We clearly need to be able to give farmers certainty about the workforce,” he said. “If I was now ready to expand my business, I would be reluctant to invest because of workforce concerns. We need to be able to secure workers for farms to grow, especially with the expansion of Greek yogurt facilities in and around the district.”

In Jefferson County, local workers who are hired at dairy farms often leave those positions after a short time because they are not accustomed to the long hours and manual labor, said Jay M. Matteson, Jefferson County agricultural coordinator. Low interest in these positions has made the launch of educational programs aimed at recruiting local workers for dairy farms largely unsuccessful.

“We’ve made concerted efforts to find local labor at farms, but they might hire 20 to 30 people over the course of a year or two just to keep a position filled,” he said. “Many farms aren’t excited about growing their operations because they don’t know if they’ll have a reliable workforce to milk their cows, There’s a big reluctance to grow, but with a reliable workforce we would see more farms interested. When these jobs are filled, there’s going to be jobs created throughout the dairy chain because of it.”

Immigrant workers, Mr. Matteson said, usually relish the opportunity to work long hours, earning money to support their families. Guest workers will seek to work at farms where they will work the most hours. If a retooled guest-worker program enables these workers to stay at a farm for five years, he said, it would provide reliable labor farms need to expand.

Mr. Owens called the current H2A visa program, which permits seasonal immigrant workers to harvest crops, is “a bureaucratic nightmare” for farmers, especially for those in Oswego County who grow fruits and vegetables and need the extra labor. He said participation in the H2A visa program is lower in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties because of the relatively low number of vegetable and fruit crops.

The H2A program, which is overseen by processing centers based in Chicago, misunderstands farmers’ labor needs and is riddled with redtape, Mr. Owens said.

“The guest-worker program has to be expanded to a large extent to do away with the H2A program,” he said.

Asked whether he’d vote on an immigration reform bill without a guest-worker provision, Mr. Owens called it a tough call that he would “probably lean against.”

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