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Congress should keep the cows in Wisconsin

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Laurie Fischer
August 15, 2011

Wisconsinís status as Americaís Dairyland was built on the hard work, determination and perseverance of generations of family farmers whose efforts helped catapult Wisconsin past New York to become the leading dairy state in the country by 1915.


This industry generates $26.5 billion in economic activity each year and is interconnected with nearly every industry sector in our state. In fact, every dollar of dairy income generates an additional $1.54 back into local communities.


While Wisconsinís dairy farms have remained almost entirely family-owned (99 percent), farming has certainly advanced since the first barns went up in our state. Unfortunately, one of the biggest challenges facing many of our farmers is a shortage in the workforce, despite paying a living wage and providing good benefits such as health insurance, 401(k) and paid vacation.


We need Congress to come up with a common-sense solution to ensure that farmers have access to a legal workforce. Right now, the House of Representatives is considering a bill that could cripple the agricultural industry.


The proposal, H.R. 2146, would mandate farm owners use the federal E-Verify program, which is an online database employers can use to check the immigration status of their employees. If a prospective hire is not in the database, a problem that has occurred regularly, then the farmer and potential hire must spend time and resources jumping through bureaucratic hoops to fix the problem.


Letís be clear. We all agree that we must solve our illegal immigration problems. This problem must address immigration in a way that does not place additional barriers in front of farmers without providing access to a legal supply of labor. The results of these unintended consequences would devastate Wisconsinís economy and jeopardize our nationís food security.


The state of Georgia provides an example of what could happen if we force a one-size-fits-all approach to immigration reform on agriculture. After Georgia passed its version of immigration reform, farmers there are dealing with a labor shortage of 30 percent to 50 percent and facing hundreds of millions of dollars in losses. With the fragile nature of our economy, I certainly wouldnít want to face a similar problem here in the Dairy State.


Farmers arenít the only ones who will suffer. Consumers will pay the price, too. If farmers start losing their labor supply, you can bet more food production will continue to move overseas, forcing America to rely on foreign countries for food. Thatís a foreign policy nightmare making us vulnerable to a number of threats.


A better solution would be for Wisconsinís congressional delegation to work with other agricultural state lawmakers to develop a solution that will allow farmers to keep the experienced workers they have and create a system to ensure enough legal farm workers in the future. That will make sure we can keep our cows in Wisconsin and keep advancing an industry weíre so proud of here in the Dairy State.


Laurie Fischer is the executive director of the Dairy Business Association, P.O. Box 13505, Green Bay, WI 54307-3505; phone (920) 771-0008.

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