Trump immigration policies have farming industry on edge

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NEW YORK - President Donald Trump's tough new immigration measures are sending shudders through the US farming industry, which largely employs a low-wage foreign workforce.

Since taking office on a "America first" agenda, Trump has made immigration a policy cornerstone. Among other measures, he has broadened authorities' powers to detain and deport unauthorised immigrants.

In a tight labour market, this could leave farms with few options when looking for workers to pick the vegetables and tend to the animals that feed the country.

Eric Ooms, who runs a 450-head dairy operation in Valatie, a village about two hours north of New York City, told AFP that many people were unwilling to do the messy work of milking cows.

And in a region where unemployment hovers under five percent, the $10.50(R 135.82) he pays for an hour's work attracts few US citizens.

"We just cannot find local people who want to get dirty and milk cows," Ooms said. "I have been doing it all the time so I am used to it. It does not mean I like it but it is how it is."

As a result, in addition to five members of his own family, Ooms employs a Mexican immigrant hired by word of mouth to get his milk past the farm gate and out to market.

Vital to food supply

The US agricultural sector relies on cheap immigrant labour to keep costs down. In all, about 70 percent of farmhands were born outside the United States, the majority of them in Mexico.

The industry acknowledges that most of these workers are not legal residents in the United States, so Trump's aggressive stance on immigration could threaten American farms.

Industry representatives nevertheless choose their words carefully.

"Increased rhetoric about enforcement is challenging," said Kristi Boswell, a lobbyist for the American Farm Bureau, a group representing the industry. 

"But it is our role to educate the country about why these workers are still vital and critical to our operations to have access to our food supply and food security."

The organisation points to the difficulties that simply expelling unauthorised migrants could create.

According to a farm bureau study, if the industry were to lose access to all undocumented workers, net farm income could be slashed by between 15 percent and 29 percent, fruit production could tumble by as much as 60 percent and consumer prices could rise about five percent.

The consequences would be particularly stark for vegetable and fruit growers, where foreign labour exceeds 40 percent, with California's producers first in line to feel the effects.

The National Milk Producers Federation in 2015 predicted a doubling of consumer milk prices in the absence of immigrant labour, which accounts for 80 percent of American milk.

There are visa programs for farm workers, but with hundreds of thousands of people work US farms without proper immigration status, legal immigrant labour is a drop in the bucket.

The H-2A agricultural guest worker visa program, intended to meet the industry's need for workers to bring in the harvest, is largely insufficient: in 2013, only 71,000 visas were granted, according to a congressional report.

The visa program makes employers responsible for workers' housing and transport and has been criticised for lacking flexibility, creating delays when harvesting cannot wait. 

Industry representatives say they hope to use the debate spurred by Trump's immigration policies to gain a greater audience for their calls for reforms that could lead to a legalised work force.

In the meantime, Eric Ooms has invested in equipment to automate the milking of his cows -- a purchase of more than $1 million that could protect his farm from a potential labour shortage.