Immigration bill would provide needed workers for local farms

By Bruce Talbott

Each year, Americans across the country enjoy the fresh Palisade peaches that are grown on my family’s fifth-generation farm on the Western Slope of Colorado.

We handle roughly six million pounds of peaches annually, representing nearly one-third of Colorado’s entire peach crop.

We’re proud to have helped put Palisade on the map as synonymous with fresh, tasty peaches. As fruit growers, we’re also proud to be an integral part of Colorado’s $40 billion agriculture industry.

One of the most challenging things about our operation, however, is finding a reliable and stable workforce.

The current guest worker program is expensive, bureaucratic and onerous. It handcuffs producers — like my family — and makes it unnecessarily difficult to get the workers we need to grow and harvest our fruit.

The seasonal nature of our growing cycle means that many Americans who initially work for us end up leaving as soon as they find an employer who can offer them year-round employment.

Unfortunately, as fruit growers, we don’t have that luxury and as a result, guest workers who come here precisely for the seasonal labor are our best chance at a stable, reliable workforce.

To give you a sense of the scope of this problem, during the five-year period our farm hired H2A guest workers, we had 98 percent of them complete their contracts. On the other hand, the corresponding American workers hired during the same period had less than a 5 percent completion rate.

An efficient, streamlined visa system that makes it easy on producers to more quickly fill labor shortages is absolutely essential to the financial health of our country’s agriculture industry, as well as our family business — our livelihood.

Luckily, some hope seems in sight. The immigration overhaul bill written by the “Group of Eight” ­— including Colorado’s own Sen. Michael Bennet — and released last month, represents one of the best chances in more than two decades to fix our broken guest-worker system.

It replaces the unworkable H2A program, which only offered 10-month seasonal visas, creating huge headaches and hassles for farmers, with a three-year visa program, offering much-needed portability for guest workers and predictability for producers.

It also places more administrative responsibility with the Department of Agriculture. The USDA has a much stronger relationship with agricultural producers and a better understanding of the agricultural community’s needs and challenges.

And it includes measures to prevent abuse, protect workers and protect American jobs and wages — all measures that were agreed to by groups representing both farm workers and producers.

All in all, the bill is a valiant attempt to fix the system. As in most undertakings, the devil is in the details, but I’m optimistic that this might be the year we actually make real, positive change that benefits both workers and producers.

No other attempts to fix our broken system have had the endorsement of so many diverse groups affected by the issue, including those on such opposite ends of the spectrum as the United Farm Workers of America and the National Council of Agricultural Employers. This is both significant and historic.

I am quite cynical of much of what goes on in our nation’s capital, but the Group of Eight’s bipartisan approach to solving this problem in a common-sense way is a bright spot.

Thanks to that group for championing this cause, and in particular to Bennet for ensuring Colorado’s voices were heard at the negotiating table.

I have met several times with Bennet and his staff over the past few years, and it is clear that understanding and supporting the needs of Colorado’s agriculture community are priorities for him, priorities that are reflected in the immigration bill.

I look forward to the bill’s speedy passage, giving us the tools to maintain a viable Colorado peach industry.

Bruce Talbott is the owner of Talbott Farms near Palisade.


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