ATHENS — It was a “field goods” morning when U.S. Rep. John Faso, R-19, visited a produce delivery business in Athens on Monday to discuss the current migrant farm labor situation.
Faso met with Field Goods Founder and President Donna Williams, Cornell Cooperative Extension Agriculture Business Management Specialist Elizabeth Higgins, Roxbury Farm Owner and Farm Manager Jody Bolluyt of Kinderhook, state Farm Bureau Deputy Director of Public Policy Kelly Young and farmers Jim Taylor and Jim VanValkenburg at the facility on Schoharie Turnpike.
Williams conducted a tour of the facility, which was previously a warehouse for the Edison, New Jersey-based Italian food distributor Vesuvio Foods, she said. It was installed with 400 palettes worth of freezer and refrigerator space and which holds produce and Yonkers Brewing Company beer.
“There’s not a lot of refrigerator freezer space in this area so it was really good to get it back in production,” Williams said.
Williams talks to farmers on a weekly basis and finds that the issue of not being able to find skilled labor is limiting their chances to grow and has affected what kind of produce Field Goods can purchase, she said.
“This labor issue is just one that keeps coming up,” Williams said. “Just this morning, in fact, a conversation about getting berries started with ‘My price is really high, I can’t get the labor — it’s really high.’”
Faso said politicians, both Republicans and Democrats, have heard from people with concerns about agricultural workforce and he finds one of the most frequent complaints from employers is about having jobs but not being able to find qualified workers to fill them. Faso toured an Amphenol Aerospace facility in Sidney, a month and a half ago where it has 50 manufacturing jobs to make connectors for military and commercial aviation to fill, but no skilled labor.
“They’re just not there and then you have employers that tell you that ‘Well, we can’t find people who will show up on time,’” Faso said.
Area farmers supply plenty of food for New York City and the Hudson Valley and Bolluyt has employees who have some family members who are undocumented in their households and are fearful of being deported, she said.
“Immigration becomes not only a food sovereignty, food security issue, it’s also a human issue,” Bolluyt said. “Most of the bigger farms rely on immigrant labor and they’re terrified.”
Workers who have H2A visas separate them from their families, and Bolluyt said she could not imagine having to go away to a different country for six months and not see her family.
“You can come work but you don’t get to see your kids so that’s also a human issue,” Bolluyt said.
Higgins said during the 1940s and 1950s where a sizeable amount of migrant workers came to the country from Mexico and would work on different farms across the country.
“This isn’t something that’s new,” Higgins said.
Taylor raised the issue of food security, meaning the country will rely on importing more food from other countries where labor is cheaper, but the means of production are not as closely regulated as the United States, he said.
“If you can’t feed your nation you’re at the whims of other people around the world that are willing to do whatever it takes to supply you with that food,” Taylor said.
The minimum wage increase to nearly $15 per hour coming in two years was a concern raised by people in the meeting including Williams who said certain classes of people, like at-risk individuals, who need special attention. Field Goods’ 32 employees are paid above minimum wage.
“I can’t afford to do it anymore because they take up more time,” Williams said. “You’re dealing with emotional issues or personal issues.”
Congress has received plenty of coverage on the issue of migrant labor, which affects all corners of the country, Faso said after the meeting.
“We really need to solve the immigrant labor question and to do it in a way that keeps these experienced farm workers here and encourages them to come back and also treats people fairly,” Faso said. “I’m hopeful of having some additional listening sessions on agricultural issues as we go forward.”
Higgins appreciated Faso coming out to hear about the labor issues area farms face and food being wasted because there is not enough skilled labor to pluck it out of the ground, she said.
“We’ve have had growers that have had to leave products in the fields cause they don’t have enough staff, so we’re wasting food,” Higgins said. “We don’t have the labor there at the right time to harvest it at an affordable price.”
Williams said it was beneficial to have Faso visit and listen to agricultural concerns, as U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., did last year. The sustainable agriculture movement is critical to the Hudson Valley and the momentum cannot be stopped due to agricultural issues.
“It gives you some more hope in terms of what’s going on politically,” Williams said after the meeting. “It seems like Congressman Faso is on the ball and he’s running with it — looks like we’re going to have things accomplished.”
To reach reporter Daniel Zuckerman email email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @DZuckerman_CGM