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State Views: Immigration reform vital to Wisconsin farmers

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Duane W. Maatz
March 31, 2014

Wisconsin’s 76,800 farms are a key economic driver for our state, responsible for an estimated $59.16 billion annually. The UW Extension and UW-Madison have found our vegetable production and processing account for 35,000 jobs and more than $6.4 billion in economic activity. And last year, our farmers and processors exported $3.2 billion worth of agricultural products.

We are the top producers in the country for cheese, green beans, carrots, red beets and lima beans, and we are third in the country in potatoes. We are already known as America’s Dairyland, and it won’t be long before we’ll also be known as America’s Land of Potatoes and Vegetables.

People are familiar with many of the daily challenges farmers face, such as the weather, pests and blight, but there is one challenge those not involved in the industry are generally unaware of: the availability of workers. It might surprise people to learn that 2 million people are hired each year to work on American farms, or that 75 percent of those hired are foreign born.

Each of these workers supports two to three other jobs in areas such as marketing and transportation. Regardless of whether you are talking about a dairy farm or a potato farm, they all have one thing in common—the need for a legal, reliable, stable and skilled workforce in order to survive.

This is why the agricultural industry has been a vocal proponent of immigration reform. Congress last made changes to our immigration policy 28 years ago. That’s more than sufficient time to prove that the system is broken. The U.S. Senate took an important first step toward fixing it last year when it passed an immigration reform bill that includes provisions that would ensure farmers have access to a legal and stable workforce. It also takes important steps to strengthen border security. Now, we need the House of Representatives to do the same.

If the House fails to follow the Senate’s lead and pushes action on immigration off for yet another year, make no mistake about it—that’s setting our farmers and possibly our food system up to fail. Tom Vilsack, U.S. secretary of agriculture, put it best when he said recently “…if we continue to have the broken immigration system we have, we’re going to compromise the affordability and the availability of food in this country.”

Failure to give us a 21st-century immigration policy this year is going to put us in the position of exporting jobs and importing our food. So, not only will failure to pass immigration reform put tens of thousands of farmers’ livelihoods at risk, it also imperils our economy and our country’s food safety.

Congress needs to understand that farmers here in Wisconsin and across the country cannot afford to let them push this issue off into some distant future. Our livelihoods and those of the people who work for us depend on Congress creating a common-sense 21st-century immigration policy, as does our food safety.

Duane W. Maatz is executive director of the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association, Antigo. Phone 715-623-7683; email wpvga@wisconsinpotatoes.com.



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