Overhaul of Farm Worker Program Proposed Farmers say that it's getting harder to find enough field help to harvest their crops. The Bush Administration has proposed an overhaul of the country's agricultural worker program that would allow more temporary workers into the country.
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Overhaul of Farm Worker Program Proposed

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Overhaul of Farm Worker Program Proposed

Overhaul of Farm Worker Program Proposed

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Perfect peaches and ripe tomatoes in the produce section of the supermarket have to be picked right on time. Farmers say that's getting harder to do without enough hands to harvest their crops. So, the Bush administration has proposed overhauling a program to bring in temporary farm workers.

Sasha Khokha of member station KQED talked with farmers about whether the changes will help.

SASHA KHOKHA: Luanna Holstrom(ph) grows 600 acres of lush tomatoes on bluffs above the Pacific near San Diego. The farm cafeteria serves up hot tacos to some 600 Mexican workers brought in to harvest tomatoes under a guest worker program.

Ms. LUANNA HOLSTROM (Farmer): Our housing facility is basically set up like a college dormitory-type (unintelligible) pool table, foosball…

KHOKHA: Holstrom farms on land leased from Camp Pendleton. She signed up for the guest worker program after 9/11 when federal officials rejected 75 percent of her workforce.

Ms. HOLSTROM: They were identified as having fraudulent documents. In the meantime we're watching our crop rotting out in the fields.

KHOKHA: So Holstrom put in an emergency application for guest workers. As long as she could provide food and housing and prove she couldn't find any legal workers in the U.S. willing to do the job, the government would provide temporary work visas to foreign tomato pickers. But Holstrom found out she had to wait six weeks for workers while $2 million worth of tomatoes rotted on the vine.

Ms. HOLSTROM: That's when I realized how difficult and how cumbersome and how frustrating the program could be.

KHOKHA: Holstrom says she's glad the Bush administration is proposing to speed up the process. But she's skeptical they'll be able to solve the labor shortage. The federal government readily admits the guest worker program hasn't been working.

Mr. LEON SEQUEIRA (Assistant Secretary for Policy, U.S. Department of Labor): And that's what our proposal attempts to do. is to ensure the program is less bureaucratic, that it works and that they can in fact be assured they can get workers on time.

KHOKHA: That's Leon Sequeira. He's assistant secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Labor.

Mr. SEQUEIRA: But there's a huge opportunity here to replace any illegal workforce with a legal one.

Mr. BARRY BEDWELL (President, California Grape and Tree Fruit League): But the bottom line is the whole process doesn't work. It's like trying to dress up a pig. It's just not going to happen.

KHOKHA: Barry Bedwell is president of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League. He's standing in a grape vineyard near Fresno where a crew is pruning vines in the shadow of the Sierra foothills.

(Soundbite of digging)

KHOKHA: Come summertime vineyards like these will be filled with farm workers picking tender fruit. But Bedwell says, here in California, the nation's largest farm state, they mostly won't be guest workers. Because even with some fixes, the program, known as H2A, just can't provide farmers the flexible workforce they need.

Mr. BEDWELL: You would probably have to start on an H2A application program now as we look out at adornment vineyard trying to guess when these grapes may be ready. That's just not always practical to do.

KHOKHA: Bedwell says his group will continue to push for a bill, which has failed to pass Congress, to legalize millions of undocumented farm workers already here. But the largest group of farmers using the guest worker program today, the North Carolina Growers Association says its mostly pleased with the overhaul.

Deputy Director Lee Wicker says he likes one of the changes, which would make the wage scale reflect regional differences. Under the current rules, North Carolina guest workers earn about $2 more than what most farm workers make there.

Mr. LEE WICKER (Deputy Director, North Carolina Growers Association): I think if we're going to compete in the world market growing fresh products - tobacco or sweet potatoes or cucumbers - we've got to have a workable guest worker program with reasonable wage rates and reasonable worker protections. Otherwise we're going to push our food production offshore and that's unacceptable.

KHOKHA: The federal government is expected to hammer out a final draft of the changes some time this summer, well past peak harvest time for many crops.

For NPR News, I'm Sasha Khokha.

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