AG Sec Sonny Perdue visits San Benito

Immigration looms as big issue for California farmers

CALIFORNIA CITRUS Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue inspects Southern California citrus during his visit to the state.

Eight days after unveiling his plans for a new Farm Bill in Washington, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue headed to California to help sell the plan to farmers in the nation’s biggest agricultural state.

His whirlwind visit was to have included stops at farms in both Hollister on Feb. 14 and Gilroy on Feb. 15, but the second day was canceled as Perdue was called back to the White House for a special Cabinet meeting on immigration.

California’s farm leaders have expressed support for some aspects of the new Farm Bill, which is up for its five-year renewal in Congress this year, but proposed immigration policies are a big sticking point with many farmers and farm worker organizations

California Farm Bureau President Jamie Johansson, who attended a dinner meeting with Perdue in Tres Piños on Feb. 14, said the Administration’s proposed “Guestworker Act” contains a number of features that would harm the current immigrant employees on whom California farms and ranches depend.

The private dinner, at the Inn at Tres Piños restaurant, included agriculture officials from San Benito and Santa Clara counties, as well as selected farmers and growers.

Agriculture is big business in San Benito and southern Santa Clara counties, where farm and ag producers are among the biggest employers, and biggest taxpayers.

Perdue began his day on Feb. 14 in Porterville near Visalia, visiting Porterville Citrus.

Also in Visalia, he an almond orchard, then visited an almond packing facility in Hanford, and a dairy in Coalinga.

He reportedly met after lunch in Gustine near the San Luis Reservoir with state and regional water officials to discuss water resources.

Richard Bianchi of Hollister, of Sabor Farms in Salinas, showed off some of his Hollister facility’s new imaging equipment used in fertilization and thinning of lettuce in the field.

The dinner in Tres Piños followed.

Perdue had been scheduled to tour Uesugi Farms operations in Gilroy the next day, Feb. 15, but had to return unexpectedly to Washington, D.C.

Pete Aiello, Uesugi Farms general manager, said he had been looking forward to the chance to meet with Perdue. Uesugi has operations, in addition to Gilroy on Highway 25, in Bakersfield, St. Martin, Coachella, Holtville, and Piru.

The pending Farm Bill renewal and revision looms in the context of the national immigration debate.

Last week, Texas Rep. K. Michael Conaway framed it like this:

“We are writing this farm bill under dramatically different circumstances than we were four years ago, when prices were high and rural America was thriving. Today, a host of factors—including natural disasters and high foreign subsidies, tariff and non-tariff barriers—have all contributed to chronically depressed prices.”

Perdue responded with this statement:

“I recognize that it is the job of Congress to write the Farm Bill. But we at USDA stand ready to provide whatever counsel Congress may request or require.

“Over the past nine months, my team and I have traveled to more than 30 states to talk with the men and women who are at work in the fields on America’s farms and ranches to produce the food and fiber that feeds and clothes every American, and also much of the world.

“Whether we were holding town halls, or listening sessions in fields, machine sheds, community colleges, or front yards, we were gathering good advice. We heard about what works from previous Farm Bills, and what is not working right now. We took what we heard from the field and have developed a set of principles to aid Congress in drafting the next Farm Bill.”

In California, the California Farm Bureau, whose leaders joined part of the Perdue tour, are worried about Trump Administration plans for drastically changing immigration rules at the expense of the state’s farms and farm workers.

The Farm Bureau’s Johansson said, “There’s a longstanding need to create a workable temporary-visa program for agriculture that provides greater stability and opportunities for agricultural employees and their families.”

He said the Trump plan “would cause too much disruption for our employees and our communities.”

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