WASHINGTON – Forums with high-profile politicians, congressional visits, briefings and a meeting with the USDA deputy secretary.
It’s not the typical schedule for an Ohio farmer, but it’s exactly what the state’s Farm Bureau county presidents did during the group’s annual trip to Washington D.C. March 7-9.
The presidents zeroed in on a few key topics during the trip, urging their representatives to consider how matters like the energy policy and immigration laws will affect the future of agriculture.
Soaring fuel costs and a nation addicted to foreign oil has prompted the U.S. to examine its energy policy and explore renewable fuel resources.
“Agriculture and rural America play a key role in the development of these policies,” USDA Deputy Secretary Chuck Conner told the Farm Bureau group.
Renewable fuels seem like a viable solution to U.S. oil problems, but the public has questioned the morality of turning food into fuel, asking if some will go hungry so others can drive.
Farm Bureau members said they will gladly ensure the nation’s food supply will remain where it’s always been.
“If we were to take 25 percent of corn and put it into fuel, the farming community will replace it,” said Reed Varian, Stark County Farm Bureau president.
OK to drill. It is vital for the U.S. to become less dependent on foreign oil, according to Sen. Mike DeWine.
“It’s not a question of dollars and cents,” he said. “It’s a matter of national security.”
U.S. Rep. Bob Ney said drilling for oil on U.S. territory would also help lower the cost of energy.
“If we drill, I think we can keep the price at bay,” he said.
The Energy Policy Act of 2005 does not allow oil and gas production in energy-rich U.S. areas such as the 1002 area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Outer Continental Shelf region.
The American Farm Bureau Federation supports the production and use of agricultural-based energy products through tax credits of at least 10 years and through other measures such as a renewable fuels standard. It also supports using the nation’s energy reserves for the production of oil and natural gas.
Guest worker program
Immigration is another hot topic for farmers around the state.
“Our fruit and vegetable growers rely heavily on the migrant workforce and we’re very much supporting a guest worker program,” said Kim Davis, a Farm Bureau state trustee who serves Carroll, Harrison, Tuscarawas and Jefferson counties.
The country’s current guest worker program, H-2A, is ineffective and its policies discourage most farmers from using the program, according to literature from the American Farm Bureau Federation.
The Farm Bureau said H-2A requires employers to pay wages that are higher than normal and provide housing at virtually no cost to workers. The program only allows temporary employment of migrant workers, even though some segments of agriculture need them year-round.
Ultimate goal. Farm Bureau members are encouraging Congress to pass a temporary worker program that allows agricultural employers to pay average wages and provides renewable temporary worker visas that last several years, but eventually expire.
In addition, a guest worker program for agriculture should have the same requirements as programs for other sectors and the program should not expand labor laws.
Finally, legislation should offer a legitimate and fair opportunity for some agricultural workers to apply for a permanent resident visa, according to Farm Bureau literature.
“We’re not asking for citizenship, just for seasonal time,” said Tom Koch, Mahoning County Farm Bureau president.
Many producers said a migrant workforce is essential to the survival of the agricultural industry because U.S. citizens refuse to work the long hours and perform the hard labor.
“Americans do not want the jobs we’re looking for in the guest worker program,” said Mike Boyert, Medina County Farm Bureau president.
Crucial. Jeff Zellers, Ohio Farm Bureau first vice president and a vegetable grower from Hartville, said a guest worker program is crucial to the success of agriculture.
“There are not 10 million unemployed people here (in the U.S.) who will do that kind of work,” he said.
DeWine agreed with Farm Bureau members and told them the U.S. needs an effective guest worker program.
“The current program just doesn’t work and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” he said.
The House passed a bill tightening immigration laws in December. The bill, sponsored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner and Homeland Security Chairman Peter King, did not include a guest worker provision.
The Senate has not voted on the issue yet, but DeWine said he believes the guest worker component will be added as an amendment once the bill hits the Senate floor.
(Reporter Janelle Skrinjar welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at email@example.com.)