Fifty farmers and agricultural producers told Rep. Anthony Brindisi on Tuesday they struggle to find qualified workers, maintain profitability and worry about staying afloat in the future.
The Agricultural Advisory Council met at the Grange in Cortland — one of several events that Brindisi is attending in Cortland throughout the week. Brindisi (D-Utica) met with senior citizens earlier Tuesday and after the agriculture meeting he met with veterans. On Monday, Brindisi stopped at the Cortland YWCA and Grace Christian Fellowship and on Thursday he will attend a Chamber of Commerce breakfast.
Brindisi told the Agricultural Advisory Council — which he formed to ensure their concerns are represented in Washington — he wants their insight on the most pressing issues ranging from fair trade to labor. The council represents his entire district — north to Lake Ontario and south of Binghamton.
Because the committee is so large, Brindisi questioned whether the needs of everyone would be better recognized if it is broken into smaller subcommittees, either by issue or region.
However, Dan Casler of Casler Farms Organics in Little Falls, said the large group setting benefits everyone, since people can learn from one another. And while some topics are particular to specific industries, many topics overlap, said Casler and others.
Finding qualified labor on their farms is difficult, farmers said, although Truxton dairy farmer Kathie Arnold disagreed with Terri DiNitto, a farmer from Marcy who alleged Americans workers are lazy.
The discussion arose out of Brindisi’s inquiry about labor issues, angling to the concern farmers face about migrant workers being deported — and many farmers said getting American workers to do the jobs is difficult, whereas immigrants will work hard and produce good results.
Misconceptions abound, said the farmers, for example that their jobs don’t require a skilled work force, when really they do.
“Immigrant labor has always been part of agriculture,” said Paul Fouts, a dairy farmer whose farm straddles the Cortlandville/Groton town line.
Several farmers noted their support for the H-2A Visa program, which allows U.S. employers to hire foreign workers to fill temporary agricultural jobs. However, some said the bureaucratic requirements are onerous, and that it is a temporary fix on a larger problem, which is that agricultural jobs need to be made more attractive to young people.
Casler said after the meeting that Brindisi is open to hearing the concerns of the agricultural community and working to make things better. He believes it is only a matter of time before the Senate and Congress realize the farm bill, passed last year, “isn’t gonna be a savior” and something needs to be done about low milk prices.
Low prices for other commodities is concerning to Kay Hilsberg of Hunter & Hilsberg, a producer of jams and jellies in Homer.
Hilsberg said Canada produces fruit spreads cheaper than what can be done in the United States, a concern across all sectors of agriculture that was raised at the meeting.
“This is a great first step and we’ll see where it leads,” he said after the meeting.