Industry watchdogs were not surprised by this week's report. On Thursday, the National Farmers Union called upon the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives to investigate GIPSA's failure to perform its duties. And as Congress got back to business this week, other items impacting rural America also are on the agenda. Key issues include everything from a sweeping deficit reduction package, to preparing for an impending pandemic of Avian Flu, to the arduous process of writing the next Farm Bill. This week though, America's leading farm trade group spoke out on the impact of immigration reforms on American agriculture.
It's difficult to pinpoint the number of farm workers in the U.S., but it takes just one drive by any fruit or vegetable field to readily see how dependent American agriculture is upon labor -- much of it from south of the border.
It is that reliance that has the American Farm Bureau Federation mounting a campaign to stop a border security bill passed by the House last month.
Paul Schlegel, American Farm Bureau Federation: "We want to make sure the final proposal Congress takes up protects the interests of U.S. agriculture."
The Farm Bureau charges that the enforcement provisions requiring all U.S. companies to verify their workers are not illegal immigrants would increase labor costs and cause a decline in production.
In an economic analysis of the bill, the Farm Bureau says if stricter border security made it more difficult for farm laborers to enter and stay in the U.S., employers would be forced to compete for workers. The competition for workers, the study concluded, would force the average hourly farm worker's wage up from $9.75 to between $11 and $14.50 per hour.
Paul Schlegel, American Farm Bureau Federation: "We could lose a significant proportion, up to one-third of the fruit and vegetable sector if we make the wrong policy decision on immigration. We could lose up to $5 billion in farm income and the rest of the sector. The total impact could be in the neighborhood of $10 to $14 billion in the agriculture, the U.S. agriculture sector."
The Farm Bureau says half the fruits and vegetables are harvested by hand to avoid mechanical damage to the crop.
Labor Department investigators have found that about 50 percent of the farm workers are in the country illegally. The Farm Bureau says its members only hire workers with documents and they don't have the ability to check the legality of the paperwork.
The organization says it favors parts of the immigration and border security bills, but believes there needs to be a system that would provide both a reliable supply of farm labor and stricter border enforcement.
In December, the cotton industry also spoke out -- saying Texas, the nation's top cotton-producing state, won't be able to continue raising bumper crops if immigration reforms lead to closing the border with Mexico and having 11 million undocumented workers charged with felonies. Speaking at a cotton conference, Representative Henry Cuellar, a democrat from San Antonio said, "For the agricultural industry, having workers is very, very important. If you make them felons, you have no workers."