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U.S. lawsuit over farmworkers shines light on visa program

The Wall Street Journal | Posted on August 15, 2017

For the last two seasons, G Farms has depended on legal migrant workers to harvest potatoes, onions and watermelons growing in its fields on the outskirts of Phoenix. Now the farm is bearing different fruit: a first-of-its-kind federal lawsuit that federal officials and immigration activists say exemplifies the pitfalls of the nation’s agricultural visa program—as Congress proposes changes to it.This year the U.S. Labor Department took the farm to court, saying its owner, Santiago Gonzalez, underpaid some of its 69 workers by not offering a set, hourly wage and housed them in an “encampment” consisting of yellow school buses and semitrailers that “violated numerous safety, sanitation and fire code regulations.”Janet Herold, the regional solicitor in charge of the case for the Labor Department, called the living situations a “horror show” that could have led to many worker deaths.The case is the first time the department won a preliminary injunction against a farm using the temporary farmworker visa, known as the H2A. A federal judge barred the business from housing the workers in the encampment, forcing it to house them in an apartment complex and an extended-stay motel for the rest of the season.

Agriculture on front lines of immigrant worker shortage

Bloomberg | Posted on August 15, 2017

How agriculture handles its diminishing supply of undocumented workers could be a bellwether for other industries that may need to cope with increased immigration enforcement.As the Trump administration continues to crack down on illegal immigration, industries that historically have been dependent on unauthorized immigrants are going to need a plan B. Agriculture is a “great case study in the adaptability of sectors of the economy, given demographic changes,” Michael Fix, president of the Migration Policy Institute, told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 10. Even though the number of immigrant farm workers is dwindling, “we haven’t seen disaster yet in agriculture,” he said.The industry’s ability to adapt could determine the future of meatpacking, construction, and other immigrant-dependent industries that are “finding their labor forces drying up,” he said.Between 2000 and 2014, the percentage of the farm labor force made up of undocumented immigrants dropped from 55 percent to 47 percent, according to an Aug. 10 report from the MPI. The report, which relied on data from the Labor Department’s National Agricultural Worker Survey, said the decrease is in large part the result of a drop in unauthorized migration from Mexico during the recession of 2008-2009.

White House opioid commission to Trump: ‘Declare a national emergency’ on drug overdoses

The Washington Post | Posted on August 15, 2017

The President's Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis issued a preliminary report on Monday stating that its “first and most urgent recommendation” is for the president to “declare a national emergency under either the Public Health Service Act or the Stafford Act.” “With approximately 142 Americans dying every day,” the report notes, “America is enduring a death toll equal to September 11th every three weeks.”The commission, led by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, states that the goals of such a declaration would be to “force Congress to focus on funding” and to “awaken every American to this simple fact: if this scourge has not found you or your family yet, without bold action by everyone, it soon will.”

Congress, stop horsing around

Meatingplace (free registration required) | Posted on August 15, 2017

If Congress permits the resumption of horse slaughter in the United States, it will be a difficult start-up.  For one thing, companies will need to make investments in an industry that could be defunded again in a few years.For another, horses aren’t raised for meat.  FSIS recognized that horses had the highest level of residue violations of all the slaughter classes.  As we were looking at regulatory options, Congress made further considerations unnecessary with the ban.  If horse slaughter resumes, expect FSIS to take a stronger regulatory posture than before the ban.So, the abandonment and misery of horses will continue in this country.  Economic uncertainty due to the whims of Congress, and tight regulatory enforcement by FSIS cloud the future of horse slaughter in the United States if the “yeas” have it.  Shipment of live horses over long distances to other countries for slaughter will continue if the “nays” have it. It doesn’t matter whether the House or Senate wins, because the “neighs” will continue to lose.

Fed: Local food movement can spur job growth

Meatingplace (free registration required) | Posted on August 15, 2017

The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis has released research examining how the growing popularity of locally sourced food can be harnessed to boost economic opportunities for both rural and urban communities. Regional food systems are a promising avenue for economic growth through creation and enhancement of jobs and businesses, Federal Reserve Board Governor Lael Brainard and St. Louis Fed President James Bullard said in a foreword to the research. Those opportunities can advance the financial security of low- and moderate-income households and communities, they said.

USDA report raises concerns about Canadian inspection system

Meatingplace (free registration required) | Posted on August 15, 2017

A recent USDA report questioning the system used by Canadian food inspectors for meat, poultry and eggs is expected to lead to another review of procedures as Canadian officials address proposed corrective actions. The report stems from a series of “onsite equivalence verification” audits by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) last September at seven slaughter and processing plants and other Canadian offices and facilities. FSIS also verified that Canada’s Central Competent Authority (CCA) took the corrective actions offered by the U.S. agency after a 2014 audit, the report noted.

NAFTA's 'Broken Promises': These Farmers Say They Got The Raw End Of Trade Deal

NPR | Posted on August 15, 2017

You've heard that American agriculture loves trade. And it's easy to see why: Under NAFTA, American farmers have quadrupled their exports to Canada and Mexico and the two nations rank second and third, after China, as markets for U.S. farm goods. "American agriculture is virtually always a winner when trade agreements remove barriers to U.S. crops and livestock exports," says Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, the largest farmers organization in the nation.But despite the largely pro-trade drumbeat in the ag sector, there are plenty of farmers who feel otherwise. From tomato growers in Florida to cattle ranchers in Montana, some farmers bruised by NAFTA think it has favored agribusiness over small-scale farms, lowered environmental standards and made it harder to compete against cheaper imports. "Right from the beginning in 1994, NAFTA opened up [the market] for Canadian ranchers to send their cattle directly into the U.S.," recalls Gilles Stockton, a sheep and cattle rancher in central Montana. Canadian cattle were exported to be slaughtered and sold in the American market, increasing competition for U.S. ranchers. "I can't find a single [Canadian] grain elevator that will take our [durum wheat]," Brodal says, even as Canadian durum continues to enter the United States. He wants to see NAFTA renegotiated to better protect farmers like him, making it harder for U.S. trading partners to undermine its provisions. For produce farmers in Florida the stakes in a NAFTA renegotiation are even higher, as winter-grown fruits and vegetables from Mexico stream north. Florida growers have, for example, cut the number of acres they have planted in tomatoes by 25 percent under NAFTA, even as Mexico has upped its production by 230 percent.

Trump’s Trade Pullout Roils Rural America

Politico | Posted on August 15, 2017

After the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, other nations launch 27 separate negotiations to undercut U.S. exporters. The decision to pull out of the trade deal has become a double hit on places like Eagle Grove. The promised bump of $10 billion in agricultural output over 15 years, based on estimates by the U.S. International Trade Commission, won’t materialize. But Trump’s decision to withdraw from the pact also cleared the way for rival exporters such as Australia, New Zealand and the European Union to negotiate even lower tariffs with importing nations, creating potentially greater competitive advantages over U.S. exports. A POLITICO analysis found that the 11 other TPP countries are now involved in a whopping 27 separate trade negotiations with each other, other major trading powers in the region like China and massive blocs like the EU. Those efforts range from exploratory conversations to deals already signed and awaiting ratification. Seven of the most significant deals for U.S. farmers were either launched or concluded in the five months since the United States withdrew from the TPP. “I’m scared to death,” said Ron Prestage, whose North Carolina-based family pork and poultry business made its huge investment in the plant near Eagle Grove in part to reap expected gains from the TPP. He and other agricultural businesspeople and workers have reason for concern. On July 6, the EU, which already exports as much pork to Japan as the United States does, announced political agreement on a new deal that would give European pork farmers an advantage of up to $2 per pound over U.S. exporters under certain circumstances—a move which, if unchecked, is all but certain to create a widening gap between EU exports and those from the United States.

SNAP plays outsized role in the economy of rural grocery stores

Daily Yonder | Posted on August 10, 2017

As a new report shows that rural households are about 25% more likely than urban ones to participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), rural grocers say the federal nutrition program is an important part of the revenue that keeps their stores in business. “The way I see it, SNAP is one of the best government programs out there,” said Kip Yoss, who owns and operates two independent grocery stores in rural West Missouri. “It really helps us pay our utilities, our workers, and keep the doors open.” Yoss said his stores earn about 11% of sales from SNAP, which provides a cash-like benefit to low-income Americans that can be spent only on food items. Other stores Yoss works with in harder-hit rural areas earn as much as 20-30% of their revenue from SNAP, he said. SNAP accounts for 9% of grocery sales nationally, according to the Food Marketing Institute. Sixteen percent of nonmetropolitan households used SNAP (formerly called Food Stamps), according to a new study from the Food Research & Action Center using American Community Survey data for 2011-15. The metropolitan rate was 3 points lower, at 13%. (If you’re interested in seeing SNAP usage in your county, the report includes an interactive map as well as state-by-state information.)

Farms feel the immigrant impact

The Post Star | Posted on August 9, 2017

Opponents of immigration reform say immigrants drain resources that could be used for U.S. citizens.But studies show immigrants, legal and illegal, do pay taxes and pay into the Social Security system, even though most will never collect Social Security benefits.A March 2017 study by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy estimates that undocumented immigrants in the U.S. pay about $11.74 billion in state and local taxes.They pay sales tax on what they buy, property tax in the form of rent or homes they own, and many pay income taxes through Individual Tax Identification Numbers, according to the study.Undocumented immigrants in New York alone account for over $1.1 billion in taxes, the study shows.Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake, who represents farm country in Washington and Saratoga counties, said reform is needed, but she can’t do it at the state level.“It’s clear to me that our economy up here, both the agriculture economy and tourism economy, is very dependent on an immigrant workforce, and even if we just look at the challenges the growers have for seasonal visas, the process is extensive, it’s expensive and there’s not enough visas available,” she said.Washington County farmer Jay Skellie said the health of animals could be jeopardized if immigrants were herded up.“Some of these farms in western New York are milking 2,500 cows and if you take out all their workers, you’re causing a hardship to these animals. They have to be milked,” he said.