Hutchinson Consumers could see the price of fruits and vegetables double if the nation does not address a looming farm labor shortage in the wake of tightening immigration enforcement, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson said Saturday.
Peterson, D-Minn., told producers attending the Kansas State Fair that the agriculture committee will focus on the immigration issue as it strives to do its part to make sure there is adequate labor. He said some crops will not be harvested this year unless something is done.
Peterson said after the forum that he has talked with judiciary committee leaders in an effort to hold either separate or joint hearings on the issue within the next two weeks.
"We are going to let producers come in and tell their stories, what they are concerned about. We think there could be significant increases in food prices caused by this if we don't fix it," Peterson said.
Farmers need a realistic guest worker program, he said.
"Everybody recognizes something has to be done in agriculture, but one of the problems we've got is that people don't want to fix our problems without fixing the rest of it. ... They feel they may lose momentum to get the overall problem solved," he said.
Immigration was on the minds of farmers questioning the Kansas congressional delegation during a forum on the farm bill, a version of which passed the House in July. Peterson said the idea of addressing the agricultural immigration issue in the farm bill has been brought up a number of times.
"My position at this point has been I've got enough problems with what I am dealing with, but it is back being talked about again. It is one of the most serious problems we have in agriculture - what are we going to do about this labor situation," Peterson said.
Sen. Sam Brownback, a Republican presidential candidate, said immigration reform has been the most difficult issue he has dealt with in Congress. Brownback, R-Kan., is a member of the Senate judiciary committee, where an immigration bill would need to originate.
The ongoing debate over agriculture immigration comes as lawmakers work on the next farm bill. The version the House passed in July split the Kansas delegation, with Reps. Todd Tiahrt and Jerry Moran voting against it. Rep. Nancy Boyda, D-Kan., the Kansas freshman representative on the agriculture committee, supported the bill.
Boyda called it a good bill, although not perfect. It kept its commodity payments, a feat considering 80 percent of Congress represents suburban and urban areas. It is a hard sell to ask for more farm payments when the food stamp program has not had an increase in 20 years. About 12 percent of the farm bill goes to fund farming programs, with the rest funding programs such as food stamps.
Moran told fairgoers he voted against the bill because of last-minute changes such as cuts in crop insurance and the addition of a provision taxing foreign corporations.
"We can do better in regards to many things," Moran said.
It is now up to the Senate to draft its take on a farm bill. Brownback, along with Sen. Pat Roberts, told producers at the fair they too would vote against the current version of the farm bill.
Brownback said he does not think lawmakers should be increasing taxes with a farm bill.
Roberts expressed concern about crop insurance cuts and questioned whether the bill went far enough in consistently paying farmers even during bad crop years.