* Focus is on agricultural workers, would replace H2-A program
* Would allow illegal workers to gain legal status
* Immigration a top issue for Congress this year
NASHVILLE, Jan 15 (Reuters) - The largest U.S. farm group threw its weight behind a new immigration law reform on Tuesday to replace the current guest worker program and to put undocumented workers already in the country on a defined path to legal status.
Delegates at the annual meeting of the 6 million-member American Farm Bureau Federation adopted the reform package as national policy. AFBF is among a dozen agricultural and landscape industry groups backing it.
The vote came a day after U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told Farm Bureau members to speak up for comprehensive immigration reform.
Agriculture has a direct stake in the issue, given its need for a steady and reliable supply of labor to stop certain crops from rotting in the field.
Larry Wooten, president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau, said the Farm Bureau's goal was "to push Congress to action."
Immigration reform became a front-burner issue after overwhelming support from Hispanic voters figured in President Barack Obama's re-election in November.
AFBF president Bob Stallman said some lawmakers "are eager to move ahead" on farm worker reform but, "The reality is we're only going to solve this through comprehensive immigration reform."
The White House was expected to propose a wide-ranging package early this year, including a guest worker program and a path to citizenship for undocumented workers.
The U.S. agricultural industry employs 1.5 million workers annually in temporary or full-time jobs. Many of them, perhaps 500,000 to 900,000 in all, are believed to be undocumented.
Despite the persistently high unemployment rate, farmers and ranchers say it is a perennial struggle to find enough workers to perform the back-breaking labor of fruit and vegetable harvesting, or the daily care of livestock.
TWO-PART PLAN FOR FARM LABOR REFORM
The umbrella group Agriculture Workforce Coalition has proposed a two-part plan for farm labor reform.
A so-called Agricultural Worker Program would allow 11-month visas for "at will" laborers who move from employer to employer, and 12-month visas for workers with a contract with a producer. In both cases, visas could be renewed.
For undocumented workers, the package would allow them to gain "permanent legal status and the right to work in whatever industry they choose" after working "for a number of days annually in agriculture for several years."
Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley said during a teleconference on Tuesday that piecemeal reform of immigration law appeared possible this year on issues that include guest workers.
But Grassley said there did not seem to be compromise at this point on the wide range of sentiment on immigration, from providing a clear path to citizenship to deportation of the millions of illegal aliens now in the country.
If Congress improves the guest worker program, he said, "I think you'd find these people willing to go home and come back legally."
FARM GROUP OPPOSES CROP INSURANCE LIMITS
Also during Tuesday's policy-setting session, the 362 Farm Bureau delegates from a cross the country voted to:
- oppose any limit to the premium subsidy for crop insurance, as well as income eligibility or payment limits for the program. The Senate voted 66-33 in 2012 to reduce the premium subsidy for growers with more than $750,000 in adjusted gross income, but the idea did not become law. The government pays 62 cents of each $1 of premium.
- give Farm Bureau leaders more latitude in working with Congress to overhaul the farm program. House and Senate farm bills died at the end of 2012 partly because of a fight pitting rice and peanut growers who wanted higher crop supports against wheat, corn and soybean farmers who wanted a new program that protects grower revenue.
"We're trying to keep all options open," said Phil Nelson, president of the Illinois Farm Bureau.