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Area farmers sound off to U.S. agriculture secretary on visas, tariffs

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Reprinted with permission from the Times Union

VALATIE — Mexican music graced the air in the barn at the Altobelli Family where workers sorted the sweet corn crop.

The music was turned off by the time U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue arrived for a tour with John and Becky Altobelli, who told him that four of the eight people working on the corn harvest were seasonal workers from Mexico and it would be hard to make their 240-acre vegetable farm pay without these workers and the visa program through which they come to this country.

On Thursday, August 23, Secretary Perdue was on a whirlwind visit to Columbia County where he heard from local farmers from five upstate counties on Mexican labor, Canadian steel, depressed prices for milk and other topics.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue (second from l) and Congressman John Faso (R-19th) take a tour of the Altobelli Family Farm on Thursday, August 23 in Valatie. Farm owners John Altobelli (second from r) and his wife Becky (l) show them around. Photo by Lori Van Buren

Foreign workers “are part of the productivity of the American farmer in a very unique way,” said Mr. Perdue.

The H-2A visa program, which allows farms to bring in seasonal agriculture workers from other countries, is part of a tangle over U.S. immigration policy. The Altobellis said this year they faced a bureaucratic logjam that took intervention from Rep. John Faso (R-19th) to resolve.

With farmers across the country relying on tens of thousands of H-2A workers, Secretary Perdue said the Agriculture Department is trying to speed up the visa process through an internet portal that will consolidate visa applications to the U.S. Labor, State and Homeland Security departments.

While that measure could be ready by the spring, said Mr. Perdue, what is needed is a grand deal on immigration law that includes border security and the fate of undocumented people already in the United States. Congress and President Donald Trump haven’t been able to reach an agreement on the politically volatile issue.

Rep. Faso, a Kinderhook Republican, said he was backing a bill to provide a “legal stable agricultural work force” that could cover 3 million currently undocumented people in the U.S., and require such people return to their home country periodically as a “touchback” provision.

To illustrate how tariffs on Canada are hit area farmers, James Davenport of Columbia County said that before the tariffs were imposed, he paid $282 for a length of Canadian-made steel pipe for his farm. When he needed the same amount of pipe after the tariffs began, it cost $379.

Mr. Perdue defended the tariffs as necessary pain in order to achieve beneficial ends, likening it go going on a diet “that might not feel good at first.” He said Canadian barriers to U.S. products were unfair and that the U.S. had to respond in kind.

Canada is New York’s largest trading partner. The New York Farm Bureau has come out against the tariffs, saying the measure could stifle economic benefits that flow between the two regions.

During an open-air meeting with farmers at the Dutch Hollow dairy farm in Valatie, Secretary Perdue was asked how the Trump administration will allocate $12 billion set aside to help farmers hurt by lost exports to China and other countries that retaliated with their own tariffs on U.S. goods.

Rensselaer County farmer Paul Molesky, who runs a 2,500-cow dairy farm, said exports are critical, given that the U.S. dairy industry is producing more milk than is consumed domestically.

Mr. Perdue said details on which commodities will get government subsidies will be announced Monday. He did not indicate whether milk would be included.

Mr. Perdue hinted that some kind of agreement with Mexico on trade issues could be announced “maybe tomorrow, maybe next week … Once Mexico is in hand, we hope that Canada will come along quickly.”

On Monday, Secretary Perdue did send out a press release with details of actions the USDA will take to assist farmers “in response to trade damage from unjustified retaliation by foreign nations.” The release and information can be found at https://www.usda.gov.

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