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Labor uncertainty worries farmers Farm Bureau warns of bankruptcies without immigration reform

In 2007, the fortunes of many Western New York farmers won't be as dependent on local weather as on the political climate in Washington.

That's where the politicians will be turning their attention to immigrant labor - again.

According to a report from the Farm Credit Associations of New York, as many as 9 0 0 farms in the state could fail over the next two years if immigration reform isn't instituted.

In the wake of a year of raids on farms and facilities by immigration officials, many farmers feel their livelihood is under attack.

The Farm Credit report calls the situation a "man-made disaster," and estimates it is linked to millions of dollars of losses to state farms.

"Hundreds of family farms will go out of business because of the financial losses from the labor problems created by raids and the threat of raids," said the report.

"Based on past experience, these farms will not come back into production."

The solution, according to many farmers, is immigration reform that will create a guestworker program.

Most argue that they can't find native-born workers who are willing to do the kind of hard seasonal labor the migrants perform and have the skills to do that work.

"The work these people do is a skill; there is an art to it," said Maureen Torrey, whose Torrey Farms cultivates over 10,000 acres.

"We can't just have a school kid come in and do it, to know when it's ready, to know what size it should be."

Torrey says that her family's farm - and her family has been farming in Genesee County since 1803 - defies stereotypes that characterize farmers as simply looking for cheap labor. Her workers, she said, are paid $10.75 an hour or more, plus receive free housing and free child care.

"It's supply and demand," she said. "We all know that labor is our No. 1 expense, whether it's vegetables, fruit or dairy. We have to be competitive in the market place."

Torrey said Canada already has a guest worker program, enabling Ontario competitors to operate without the labor concerns facing area farms.

Consequently, farmers like Torrey and groups like the American Farm Bureau have been increasing the already considerable pressure on Congress to change immigration laws and make it easier for farmers to hire non-citizen workers - and avoid raids like the one that resulted in 28 arrests on Torrey's farm in October.

Even without the raids, farmers are having problems finding workers.

Niagara County farmers last year reported leaving strawberries, plums and pears unpicked because of a lack of labor.

Michael Gerber is president of Farm Credit of Western New York, one of the three farm credit groups that released the immigration report.

His group and two other regional associations have more than $1 billion in loans out in New York State.

Gerber said the uncertainty over labor is affecting everything in his customer base.

"The disruption of not knowing what could happen today or tomorrow affects how you do your business," he said. "It's caused producers to ask a lot of questions about whether they want to take risks in their business. Ultimately they will ask if they want to keep doing business."

Gerber said the potential damage to New York State could be the loss of over 900 farms, $195 million in agricultural production and over 200,000 acres in land used for farming.

The report placed the projected farm losses at 176 vegetable farms, 225 fruit farms and 522 dairy and other farms.

Pete Gregg, the spokesman for the New York State Farm Bureau, said he's optimistic about legislation to help farmers.

"We're hopeful the new congress will immediately take up immigration reform," he said. "The issue doesn't fall among party lines; it's more geographical. Indications we're getting are they are going to take the issue up."

"Both Sen. [Hillary Rodham] Clinton and [Sen. Charles] Schumer are now in the majority party and are on our side in this issue, and we're eager to see their leadership."

e-mail: eploetz@buffnews.com

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