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Rep. Owens foreign workers law could benefit local dairy farms

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CANTON - Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, is pushing legislation that would open the dairy industry to foreign workers, allowing the roughly 250 dairy farms in the county to fill jobs that local residents have been uninterested in.

Mr. Owens’ proposal would allow farms to hire foreign workers for three years at a time with the possibility of extending their stay another three years.

The current guest worker program, known as the H-2A temporary agricultural program, allows for seasonal employment of foreign workers in jobs that last no more than one year.

Fruit and vegetable farmers, more tied to seasonal rotations, have been able to take advantage of the program but dairy farmers haven’t been able to access the labor pool in the same way.

“It wasn’t designed for dairy where we need year-round employees,” Jon Greenwood, president of the St. Lawrence County Farm Bureau, said.

“Most local people don’t want to milk cows,” Mr. Greenwood said. “We can find people to drive tractors and operate equipment…. If you were paying $30 an hour, maybe you would get help but that would put at us competitive disadvantage. Labor has always been a big issue. It’s not just larger farms that are looking for labor; it’s small farms too.”

Mr. Owens said the choice is clear, “You either import the labor or import the food.”

And because the average wage for milking cows hovers around $10 per hour Mr. Greenwood said the way forward is reform.

“The industry definitely needs immigration reform and a system whereby we can access workers that are legal and that we know are legal,” he said.

That’s one of the realities of the dairy industry. Even as dairy farmers are having a hard time finding local labor and are unable to access guest worker programs, cows are getting milked, often by workers who arrived in the country illegally.

Mr. Owens said reform is needed because the current situation that uses illegal immigration “makes the farmers feel extraordinarily uncomfortable.”

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Mr. Greenwood said of Mr. Owens’ bill. “That type of program would be very workable.”

John Wagner, St. Lawrence County field director for the New York State Farm Bureau, said the Bureau is supportive of Mr. Owens’ proposal.

“It would give a steady, reliable work force to our farmers,” he said.

But Mr. Wagner said the trick is to ensure the program does not place an extra burden on farmers.

The current H-2A program is expensive, Mr. Wagner said, and the “paperwork is cumbersome.”

Farmers looking for workers through the H-2A program must also be sure to exhaust all avenues of finding local workers, including taking out advertisements in local papers – another hidden fee in the process.

Mr. Wagner said an attempt should be made to lessen the burden on farmers trying to go through legal means to fill openings at their farm.

“We’re hoping that the senate and the house can get together and move something along,” Mr. Wagner said.

Mr. Owens said he hopes his legislation gets added into a comprehensive immigration reform deal that he expects will pass the House of Representatives and the Senate this year.

Mr. Owens said the chances of immigration reform being acted on this year is “better than 50 percent.”

“It’s better than any time since I’ve been in Congress,” Mr. Owens said.

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