Farmers and politicians talk immigration and migrant labor concerns at agriculture roundtable | MyWindsorNow.com

Farmers and politicians talk immigration and migrant labor concerns at agriculture roundtable

Nikki Work
nwork@greeleytribune.com

Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., knows Colorado's farmers are in trouble. He recalls when Robert Sakata, owner of Brighton's Sakata Farms, told him if any group in America is endangered, it's the American farmer.

Sakata and several other northern Colorado farmers echoed that idea Wednesday at a roundtable at Sakata Farms, which brought together farmers, ag industry professionals and elected officials or delegates from their offices.

Sakata organized the roundtable alongside Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., after Coffman visited Sakata Farms several years in a row and realized the extreme need for more interaction between farmers and politicians. This is the first year for the event, which was followed by farm tours.

Some of the biggest issues discussed were seasonal labor shortages, water rights and governmental over-regulation. Petrocco, a third-generation farmer, said his labor force is by far the No. 1 expense on his 3,000 acres of vegetables stretching from Brighton to north of Greeley. Finding workers qualified and willing to do temporary agricultural work is difficult, Petrocco said, but the hardest part is juggling restrictive immigration policies and work programs such as the H-2A temporary worker program.

Under H-2A, a farmer can bring migrant workers to his operation legally, but he is required to provide them with housing, transportation, expenses coming in and out of the country and more, as well as pay wages. The farmer also is required to guarantee a certain number of hours per week for the set time of employment, and if a farmer doesn't provide the ability to work for at least 75 percent of those hours, they must pay the full amount.

For farmers like Petrocco, who lost about a third of his crops to hail this year, providing the same amount of work with far fewer products is cumbersome. Two hailstorms knocked out about half his green bean crop within a span of three weeks, which cut green bean production down to three days a week from seven. But he is still responsible for the same number of workdays for his employees.

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Don Brown, the Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture, said he has used the H-2A worker program on his farm and ranch in Yuma and described it with one word: broken.

Petrocco said the complicated migrant worker system has not only made it harder for farmers to afford employees, but also drastically reduced the number of the seasonal workers. Now, it's more competitive than ever just to staff the farm.

Sakata said when he was young, his father, Bob Sakata, would hire his high school friends to work in the fields. It's rare now to see that type of workforce — but not unheard of. At the roundtable, Tim Ferrell of Berry Patch Farms in Brighton said he and his wife are circumventing H-2A woes by staffing the fields with millennials.

Near the end of the meeting, Larry Duell of Fort Collins' Gowan Seed Company urged both Buck and Coffman, as well as the delegates of other political officials, to take the concerns of farmers to heart and to Capitol Hill.

"It doesn't matter what side of the aisle you're on — just get together and do it for these guys," Duell said. "It's becoming a matter of survival."

H2A program

The H-2A program allows farmers to bring seasonal or temporary migrant workers to the U.S. to fill agricultural jobs and requires the farmer to provide housing, transportation and other amenities. To learn more about the program and its requirements, click here.

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