Vilsack discusses migration issues
By Larry Dreiling
The development of an effective immigration bill is just one part of a three-pronged effort for the Barack Obama administration toward solving what Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack called “the challenge of migration.”
Speaking at a luncheon before the North American Agricultural Journalists annual meeting recently in Washington, D.C., Vilsack told of a recent meeting he had with ag leaders in North Carolina concerned about ag production who said to him, “We’re either going to import workers or we’re going to import food.”
Vilsack said he took that remark to mean there is a need for a comprehensive immigration bill to prevent some American-produced food products from being produced in other countries.
“We cannot and should not take for granted that we will always have a robust commitment to agriculture. It’s something we need to address every day.”
The U.S. has 1.1 million people working in agriculture in this country. About half of those are undocumented. It could be as high as 700,000.
“We need to create a process where those individuals feel that they can stay in this country, and work in this country and contribute to this country. That requires a focus, of course, on border security, but it also requires a pathway for citizenship for these individuals where they pay a fine, learn the language, pay their back taxes if they owe any, no criminal record and they essentially go to the back of the line and work their way through to the point where they can contribute completely as citizens.”
Vilsack said the North Carolina ag leaders told him they were concerned about seeing a repeat of the immigration reforms of the 1980s, in which farm workers of that era given a pathway to citizenship moved away from agricultural employment to other occupations.
“We need help in assuring that workers will continue to deliver a labor supply for agriculture,” Vilsack said. “That means we need to have not only a pathway for citizenship for those already here but also a workable guest worker program.”
Vilsack said such a program must find “a delicate balance” between the right number of laborers so as not depress the working conditions or wages.
“We need to have wages based on data, wage levels that reflect the difference of where you live, where you work what you raise and what you do on a farm. We at USDA have a unique opportunity here and we have been providing technical assistance to those looking at this issue. We have been partnering with the Departments of Labor and Commerce that informs both a cap decision and a wage decision.
“I’m hopeful the ‘gang of eight’ will ultimately see the value in getting this done and understands the significance of the migration challenge this will create if we do not get this done properly. The Department of Labor has a role in enforcement, but USDA is uniquely positioned with its footprint across the country to be engaged in any potential guest worker system. We are there to help. We want to help. We’re willing to help.”
Vilsack also noted that “weather-related circumstances” are creating concerns for USDA in regard to the migration of crop production areas and practices both to the north and to the south.
“Climate change in agriculture is real,” Vilsack said. “We’ve seen it in more extreme drought, in increased flooding, the more horrific storms. The bark beetle infestation is another reflection of that change, which is why we’ve performed an assessment of changing climate on agriculture and forestry and concluded there are significant challenges and that if we don’t create adaptation and mitigation strategies we could see a situation where certain types of agriculture production could move either north or south.”
“This is a long, long, long, long range problem, but one that we need to pay attention to. This is why I’ve asked to double the amount of research in this area, to identify practices, techniques and technologies that will help us better mitigate the impacts.”
Vilsack also discussed his recent meeting with executives from major seed companies to work on an accord that as seed technologies begin to expire from patent protection there is a process for more generic opportunities in the creation of additional innovation as part of the crop migration situation. Vilsack also described how USDA now has a department-wide focus on water management.
“We’re also challenging our NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) personnel to come up with ways to measure and gauge the carbon storage capacity of our soils, because it could be that rural America holds one of the keys toward reducing the risks of climate change by using agricultural lands as carbon storage areas,” Vilsack said.
“Specifically, if we encourage multi-cropping, breaking down the barriers to multi-cropping, creating insurance and risk management tools that will encourage rather than disincentivize multi-cropping, and create new market opportunities for what we can grow and raise.”
Another initiative is the U.S. aligning with 30 other nations and looking at the impact of climate on global agricultural activities and made a concerted effort at focusing on renewable fuels and energy production.
“We believe there are opportunities to mitigate and adapt to climate change through an aggressive green energy effort,” Vilsack said. “We will work to renew our MOU (memorandum of understanding) with the dairy industry as they work to reduce their carbon footprint. I’ve instructed APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) to be on the lookout for invasive insects and diseases that may affect crop production and it’s why we are encouraging the NRCS to use its Conservation Innovation Grant Program to begin the process of identifying techniques and ways to better use our land to deal with things like drought.”
Vilsack also said USDA is developing an effort to reduce food waste.
“We could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2 percent just by eliminating the food that we waste,” Vilsack said. “The global challenge is that 50 percent of the food we produce doesn’t reach the plate in developing countries because of poor storage and post-harvest loss challenges.
“I’m looking at the plates here and I see some people are members of the Clean Plate Club and some are not. Statistics are pretty daunting when you look at it, that 30 percent of food in this country is not adequately or properly consumed. If you start thinking of all the landmass that ultimately ends up in a landfill or in a garbage disposal, you appreciate that this is an area we need to begin focusing more attention, whether at home, in restaurants and schools, or in food service.”
Besides migration of labor and climate, Vilsack also spoke of the migration of talented people to urban areas.
“There are young people who are migrating out of rural areas,” Vilsack said. “There are young people migrating out of farm families and that creates a challenge and a real opportunity for us at USDA and in government as a whole to formulate policies that will hopefully stem that outmigration and convince young people that there are extraordinary opportunities in rural areas.
“There are opportunities in production agriculture and exports, considering the bio-based economy that is opening up new entrepreneurial opportunities, the local and regional food systems that are exploding right now and offer opportunities for young people to start in smaller-sized operations, and the role that conservation and outdoor recreation will play in new economic opportunities for rural areas. There is a lot to talk about to young people about the challenges and opportunities about living and raising their families in rural America. We need to raise that conversation again and again.”
Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.