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Vilsack touts ag labor reform bill in visit to New York

USDA Twitter Vilsack NY roundtable.jpg
HEARING FROM FARMERS: Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack heard directly from New York farmers about infrastructure investments, farmworker demand, rural development and growing the dairy industry.
Rep. Delgado’s advisory committee discusses rural infrastructure, bolstering local food systems and needs of dairy farms.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack met with Rep. Antonio Delgado, D-N.Y., held meetings July 16 culminating in a roundtable discussion at SUNY-Cobleskill in Cobleskill, New York. Vilsack met with Delgado’s bipartisan NY-19 Agriculture Advisory Committee, which includes representatives from all 11 counties in New York’s 19th Congressional District. During the meeting, upstate farmers spoke directly with Vilsack about rural infrastructure, bolstering local food systems, supporting new farmers, and the needs of small dairy farms, including additional processing capacity and the need to address ag labor shortages.

“Secretary Vilsack heard directly from upstate farmers about much-needed infrastructure investment, farmworker demand, rural development and growing our dairy industry,” says Delgado. “I thank the Secretary, local leaders, and agriculture representatives for joining today's critical discussion and for their commitment to support important legislation and initiatives to help our upstate communities.”

Dr. Marion Terenzio, President, SUNY Cobleskill, says the organization was thrilled to host Vilsack, Delgado and members of the advisory committee to discuss the critical topics of rebuilding rural infrastructure, supporting new farmers, removing barriers to entry, and growing the dairy economy.

“SUNY Cobleskill remains at the forefront of these important discussions through our initiatives working with the regional and local community via The Institute for Rural Vitality and through our agricultural programming and education,” Terenzio says. “Regional colleges are the anchor of economic development and we look forward to continue to support our community through our network of lifetime learners.”

“At the Congressman's Agricultural Advisory Committee meeting, we discussed issues related to dairy farm success, helping new farmers, and rural infrastructure and I was so pleased at the level of understanding and support shown by our Congressman and the Secretary,” says Nan Stolzenburg, member of Delgado’s NY-19 Agriculture Advisory Committee.

Delgado also says he discussed the need for whole milk in schools. 

Dairy labor shortages

Before meeting with the advisory committee, Vilsack led a discussion focused on the Farm Workforce Modernization Act and the need to address the unworkability of current farm-labor policies. Leaders from the New York Farm Bureau, United Farm Workers, Office of the New York Commissioner of Agriculture, New York State Vegetable Growers Association, Northeast Dairy Producers, SUNY Cobleskill, local farmers and upstate farmworkers participated in the roundtable, along with Delgado.

Dairy farmers urged the government to address dairy’s acute labor shortages -- and the need for the U.S. Senate to craft a counterpart to the House-passed bipartisan Farm Workforce Modernization Act. Dairy faces special challenges as a year-round, around-the-clock agricultural sector because the current rules of the H-2A guestworker visa program limits its use to only the temporary and seasonal labor needs of agricultural employers. 

“Unfortunately, the Department of Labor hasn’t made available the current H-2A program for a commodity that ‘harvests’ its product multiple times a day, every day,” says Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation in a statement before the event. “We commend USDA and Rep. Delgado for supporting ag labor reform legislation and organizing this important discussion.”

Related: Year-round ag labor fix included in appropriations bill

NMPF supports the Farm Workforce Modernization Act as a vehicle for additional policy improvements and to prod Senate legislation that can be reconciled into a final bill that can pass both houses of Congress. Delgado was an early cosponsor of the legislation, which passed the House of Representatives by a solid bipartisan margin in 2019 and again in March. To build momentum for a solution, Vilsack hosted a bipartisan roundtable last month with key Senate negotiators and agricultural stakeholders, including NMPF.

“Without Senate action, the hard-won progress lawmakers have made on ag-labor issues won’t bring the solutions farmers need,” he says. “We need this conversation to turn into action in congressional corridors so that farmers and farmworkers can benefit from a workable labor system.” 

Northeast Dairy Producers Association Board Member Ray Dykeman and NEDPA Representative Rick Zimmerman also attended the forum. Zimmerman participated in the panel discussion on behalf of NEDPA, highlighting the need to have a workable and efficient guest worker program, which can only be achieved by continuing to have collaboration between industry partners and bipartisan leadership.

Zimmerman thanked the secretary for his support and adds, "The dairy industry depends on the future of an expanded guest worker program. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act has very important components to it, and having Congress recognize that and move it in a very prompt manner is a key step forward."

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