VALATIE — U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said Thursday that his department is working on a program to help farmers obtain migrant workers, but that ultimately Congress must change the law to solve farm labor issues.
Perdue stopped in Columbia County on his way to the Great New York State Fair in Syracuse to visit two local farms and discuss issues facing upstate farmers.
Perdue first stopped at the Altobelli Family Farm, a 240-acre spread that produces fruits and vegetables in Valatie. The farm is owned and run by John and Becky Altobelli. John took over the farm from his father, who bought it in 1956.
“We are very humbled by his visit today,” John said. “We are a small grower compared to other places around the country.”
Though they run a small-scale operation, John and Becky rely heavily on their employees to make the farm successful, including workers who live on the farm year-round — and four who came to them through the H-2A Visa program.
The program allows U.S. employers or U.S. agents who meet specific regulatory requirements to bring foreign nationals into the country to fill temporary agricultural jobs.
After touring the Altobelli farm with U.S. Rep. John Faso, R-19, Perdue took questions from reporters.
“We are hoping to have by the next growing season, spring, a more automated way for farmers to apply for H-2A visas for workers,” Perdue said. “It will be on farmers.gov and it will be like TurboTax.”
The program is meant to help farmers fill out the complicated but crucial documents required to hire workers through H-2A and send them directly to the agencies that require the forms, Perdue said.
“I think the idea will free up a lot of issues,” John Altobelli said. “If you miss anything in those forms, it can cause some real problems.”
Although the new platform for filling out visa applications may make life easier for local farmers, Perdue said Congress has to pass legislation reforming laws that affect farm labor.
“A statutory fix is needed,” Perdue said later in the day during a roundtable discussion at the Dutch Hollow Farm, a dairy producer in Schodack Landing. “We need a legal and stable system for farm labor. The current system is cumbersome and convoluted.”
Faso told a panel of farmers and other agriculture stakeholders at the Dutch Hollow Farm he supports legislation that would reform the current H-2A process.
Although Congress needs to make comprehensive immigration reform — the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which provides temporary status to immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children — is one example, fixing the H-2A program is a good step forward, Faso said.
“The legislation will make the process much smoother,” Faso said. “There are some people in Washington who like to kick the can down the road. I don’t want to kick the can down the road. I think that farm labor is somewhere we can build trust.”
Faso signed onto the bill — the Ag and Legal Workforce Act — in July when the bill was forged out of the debate that heated up at the end of 2017 into the start of 2018. The debate in Congress fizzled out after two court decisions forced President Donald Trump to stop dismantling the DACA program.
The bill would create a new agricultural guest worker program — H-2C — which would be available to year-round agricultural employers, such as dairy farmers, who cannot apply for the H-2A program. The program would also increase the number of visas and create an opportunity to exceed the cap on visas if necessary.
“We can’t do what we do without our workers,” Becky Altobelli said. “They are like family. And they have families they are trying to send money back to.”
“It is tough because you are hiring these workers for 12-month periods, not all year,” John added. “What if you have a crop failure, you lay them off, how can you expect them to stick around for another year when you might have work for them?”
Also in attendance was Assemblyman Chris Tague, R-102, who grew up on his grandfather’s dairy farm, which he took over later in life. Tague discussed challenges that dairy farmers in New York have to contend with, including low milk prices, with Perdue.
“I talked to the secretary and I told him I am concerned that we are still importing milk from Canada,” Tague said. “We should be putting American dairy first. Then if there is a need, bring it in from other countries.”
Tague also expressed concern that the USDA is not putting pressure on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to stop soy and nut milk products from advertising as dairy, as well as putting whole milk products back in schools and prisons, rather than reduced fat milks.
“I was in the same position these dairy farmers are in now in 1993 when I sold my farm,” Tague said. “Often times in America we bite the hand that feeds us. Let’s put American farmers first.”
Perdue addressed the concerns about the dairy industry during the press conference at Altobelli Family Farm, calling it an overproduction problem and touting the USDA for recently buying $50 million in liquid milk from farmers to use in school programs and donate to food banks.