Import workers or food, U.S. farm bloc says of immigration debate

WASHINGTON, April 22 Mon Apr 22, 2013 3:14pm EDT

WASHINGTON, April 22 (Reuters) - The United States will become more reliant than ever on imported food if it does not pass immigration reforms to assure there are enough workers to harvest fruit and vegetable crops and milk cows, a farm coalition told senators on Monday.

The Agriculture Workforce Coalition pointed to estimates that thousands of U.S. farms could go out of business, slashing farm income by as much as $9 billion a year without an adequate labor supply.

Some 60 to 70 percent of the estimated 2 million hired workers on U.S. farms are undocumented laborers. Growers say they are unable to hire enough American workers or guest workers from overseas to perform what is often back-breaking work.

"Production will move offshore," Charles Conner, co-chair of the workforce coalition, said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on border security. "We do have crops going unharvested."

Conner said California has lost about 80,000 acres of land formerly devoted to fruit and vegetable production because of labor shortages. Those goods are now imported.

Fruit and vegetable imports are forecast by the Agriculture Department at $24.6 billion this fiscal year, compared with exports of $14 billion.

Farms with immigrant workers produced about 60 percent of the U.S. milk supply, Conner added.

Under the immigration bill pending in the Senate, illegal farm workers would be granted legal status, a so-called blue card, and could apply after five years for permanent U.S. residency. A new guest worker program would allow visas for up to 112,333 workers a year to work on U.S. farms and ranches.

Alabama Republican Senator Jeff Sessions said the ready supply of undocumented workers drove down wage rates and displaced U.S. workers.

Several other Judiciary Committee members spoke favorably of the bill.

"They (Americans) are not doing the job," said Alyson Eastman, who runs Book-Ends Associates, a company in Orwell, Vermont, that helps farmers hire foreign workers for seasonal work. She said the Labor Department, in charge of the current H-2A guest worker program, is slow to provide workers and sets wages too high. (Reporting by Charles Abbott; Editing by Ros Krasny and Dan Grebler)