LUBBOCK, Texas - As Americans feast on Thanksgiving meals, the agriculture industry and workers who supplied the bounty have a plateful of worries.
Farmers are caught in a political stalemate over a farm bill designed to provide a safety net for production of their crops, some of which are being enjoyed across the country today.
Many agricultural employers fear crackdowns on illegal immigrant workers will leave them with labor shortages. Meanwhile, farmworkers are nervous about planned changes by the Bush administration to a visa program that dictates their pay, work conditions and job competition.
Fingers are being pointed at Congress, which failed to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill this summer and left for a two-week recess without renewing the farm bill.
The $286 billion bill also is under a veto threat from President Bush.
Rickey Bearden, a cotton producer on 5,000 acres on the South Plains of Texas, said getting a farm bill finalized is vital as farmers prepare their next year’s financial picture.
“We just need to be able to make plans,” said Bearden, board chairman of the Plains Cotton Growers, which serves a 41-county region in the world’s largest contiguous growing patch. “If they don’t make any changes it won’t be such a big deal. The more changes they make, the more it could affect us and how we have to adjust our operations accordingly.”
The five-year farm bill expired Sept. 30, but Congress provided a stopgap measure to keep farm subsidies and other programs such as food stamps funded for a while.
Some spending watchdog groups oppose the bill.
Steve Ellis, vice president of Washington, D.C.-based Taxpayers for Common Sense, said many of the growers who receive farm payments have little to do with the Thanksgiving dinner Americans are eating today.
“What they want you to believe is that the subsidies are providing the feast that’s on our tables,” Ellis said. “In reality, the subsidies are going to a very small percentage of the total number of farmers. A lot of farmers in the fruit and livestock industry are being left out of the loop.”
Increased immigration enforcement has some farmers experiencing worker shortages, with worries that the situation could get worse as Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff fights a judge’s ruling that stopped his plan to crack down on employers that hire illegal immigrants. More than half of U.S. farmworkers admit on U.S. Labor Department surveys that they are not legally authorized to work in the country. Some groups believe it’s actually about 70 percent who are illegal.
The administration is proposing revisions to the existing H2A visa program for farmworkers. Less than 1 percent of U.S. farm employers used the program last year because of high costs and the difficulty of using the program, Sharon Hughes, executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, said in a letter to President Bush this summer.
But the administration’s effort to appease agriculture employers has worried farmworker advocates such as Bruce Goldstein, executive director of Farmworker Justice Fund. He fears the changes are going to weaken protections for farmworkers.
“We in America should remember the hardworking people who put the food on our tables and yet, earn very low wages and labor in one of the most dangerous occupations in this country,” he said.