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Local ag community applauds immigration reform effort in Senate, but fearful it won't pass

By Howard B. Owens

For more than 20 years, CY Farms has been a major cabbage producer, but this year, not one seedling of cabbage will be dropped in the 400 to 500 acres of land normally set aside for the typically lucrative crop.

Instead, CY will grow a crop less labor intensive -- corn.

Craig Yunker said it was a difficult decision, but the twin challenges of Obamacare and the lack of immigration reform made growing cabbage this year untenable.

The decision will take millions of dollars out of the local economy, Yunker said.

Yunker and his staff made the decision in February because CY had to notify Pudgie Riner, owner of Triple P Farms, that CY wouldn't buy cabbage seedlings from him this year.

"We're not selling our cabbage equipment and we're not selling our cabbage facility," Yunker said. "We're taking a year off to see if this immigration thing settles out and to see if they can come up with more farmer-friendly regulations for Obamacare. If they do, we may grow cabbage again next year."

Typically, CY Farms employs 68 full-time equivalents, and 20 of those workers handle the cabbage operation.

Eliminating those 20 jobs, brings the CY workforce to 48, two below the 50-worker threshold that requires healthcare coverage under President Barack Obama's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

The act requires employers with 50 or more employees, regardless of revenue, to provide health coverage or pay higher taxes.

There's also a farm labor shortage in Western New York because of decades of immigration mismanagement.

Yunker is hopeful, to some degree, that the House and the Senate will be able to agree on immigration reform this year.

There is a bill under review in the Senate this week that both farmers and ag-worker groups seem to agree is a good move.

The bill would create a "blue card" for experienced workers already in the country. The workers would pay a $400 fee, need to prove they've paid taxes on their earnings and show they've not been accused of committing crimes. Up to 113,000 workers annually who are currently in the country without documentation would be eligible for the newly created blue cards over the next five years.

The bill also sets new visa policies for farm workers to cross the border legally for temporary farm work.

Ag-worker advocates applaud the bill's new minimum wage requirements in several ag-worker categories and praise the chance for workes to gain legal status, which advocates believe will improve working conditions.

The bill also puts farmer worker immigration under the oversight of the USDA, which is where it belongs, said NYS Farm Bureau President Dean Norton.

"We brought together a coalition of agriculture and the farm workers unions and negotiated," Norton said. "Do we get everything we wanted? No, but if this becomes law, it will be a lot better than what we have now."

Maureen Torrey, who has been working on immigration reform for 17 years and has seen attempt after attempt at reform go down in flames, is worried the highly partisan climate in Washington these days will kill this effort as well.

Reform is absolutely necessary if New York wants to keep its dairy industry, she said.

"If Congress doesn't get this passed fast enough, our dairy industry is in trouble," Torrey said. "We don't have enough people to work on the dairies and the dairies have no other option."

Non-dairy farms can use the H2A visa program to bring in a limited number of temporary workers for seasonal work, but dairy work is year-round and there is no visa program to address that need, she said.

The lack of immigration policy is having an ongoing effect on the nature of agriculture in WNY, Torrey said, and not in a good way.

More and more farmers are growing more and more corn because it's cheaper to grow and less labor intensive, but with fewer workers and lower profit margins, millions and millions of dollars are being drained out of the local economy.

Torrey said the labor costs are from $70,000 to $90,000 to grow one thousand acres of field corn, but from $1.5 million to $2 million to grow one thousand acres of cabbage.

Even with the lower cost, she said, the amount of profit on corn isn't what it is for cabbage.

"I'm really concerned about our rural communities," Torrey said. "The ag community has always been very, very good about supporting nonprofits, the hospitals, the colleges, the Boy Scouts, but if you don't have a chance to generate a profit, you don't have a chance to make the community a better place."

Ag workers are also an important part of the local economy with a real multiplier effect when they spend their earnings at local stores, car dealerships and restaurants.

Some local farming families began as immigrant families, Torrey said, migrant workers also gain experience and fill other needed roles in the economy.

Migrant workers and their children tend to be the most qualified to take on food processing jobs, she said. They have the skills and experience necessary to do the work.

"Do you think a degree from a two- or four-year school is going to prepare you for food processing work?" Torrey said. "It isn't. Only hands-on experience is going to do that. Because of the lack of an immigration policy, we've lost two generation of workers."

Yunker is worried that the House and the Senate won't be able to arrive at a compromise with the biggest sticking point being the Senate version's "path to citizenship."

"My take on it is the Senate is intent on passing a comprehensive immigration reform package that includes a path to citizenship," Yunker said. "Personally, I don't object to that at all. The House has a conservative wing that is objecting to that pathway."

Yunker said he's spoken personally to Sen. Charles Schumer -- one of the key architects of the reform bill -- and Rep. Chris Collins about the legislation.

"Selfishly, I say the blue card is adequate and just get me workers," Yunker said. "I'm not sure that's the right thing in the long run. The House wants to go piecemeal on this and just solve some problems. The Senate will want a comprehensive package and they'll deadlock.

"I think Collins believes if the House pushes back on the path to citizenship and just takes care of agriculture that the Senate would accept that as a compromise," he added. "I'm not so convinced."

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