COOPERSTOWN — Upstate dairy farms would be in better position to expand their operations if a proposed immigration reform measure — now backed by President Barack Obama — wins Congressional approval, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Wednesday.
Dairy farmers, under the legislation, could be able to take advantage of a temporary visa program that would allow them to employ immigrant farm workers year-round. Horse farms, Schumer said, will also benefit.
New York’s shortage of farm workers, he said, has stunted the ability of farms to expand and satisfy the milk demand fueled by the explosive growth of such local yogurt companies as Chobani in the Chenango County town of Columbus.
“Agriculture is one of our biggest industries in New York state, and it has been in handcuffs,” Schumer told reporters during a telephone conference call from his Washington office. “The handcuffs have been a lack of labor.”
New York farms need immigrant laborers, he said, because it’s difficult for them to find Americans wiling to work on farms.
The director of the Cornell Cooperative Extension Service for Schoharie and Otsego counties, Don Smyers, said the legislation will help upstate farmers.
“Dairy farmers are always looking for farm hands and opportunities that allow the immigrant population to work in agriculture will be much appreciated by producers,” he said. He said orchard owners and vegetable producers would also benefit from the program.
Mariane Kiraly, resource educator for the Cornell Cooperative Extension Service in Schoharie County, said the yogurt industry expansion has triggered a demand for more milk.
“If we’re going to have a booming yogurt industry, adding cows requires more labor,” Kiraly observed.
Schumer estimated that approximately 100.000 undocumented farmworkers are employed at New York farms. Under the new program, they could be entitled to gain citizenship after 10 years and would be required to pay taxes on their income. Existing law blocks dairy farms from using the temporary guest-worker visa program utilized by produce farms to find seasonal workers.
The measure would shield farms from potential federal sanctions if they employ immigrant laborers who signal that they intend to apply for an agriculture card — or “blue card.” The card would allow those workers to earn eligibility as legal permanent residents if they pay taxes and stay clear of criminal activity.
The legislation was praised by New York Farm Bureau President Dean Norton, who has a dairy farm in western New York. He said the measure would improve the ability of New York farms to compete with farms in southern states by making more immigrant farm laborers available to New York employers.
“We still have a lot of work to do, but it’s a great starting point,” Norton said.
The program would require employers to register with the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a designated agriculture employer.
If a worker were to become unemployed for more than 50 consecutive days, he or should would lose their status and be required to leave the United States.