Leaders of several Idaho agricultural associations told a congressional panel in Nampa on Saturday that they want to see changes to federal immigration law, including a more robust guest worker program, as well as some tweaks to the country’s food production policy.

“We are pleased that you are here today in Idaho to listen to our concerns,” Fred Brossy, an organic farmer from Shoshone told members of the House Agriculture Committee, which met to discuss the next federal Farm Bill, scheduled to be finished in two years.  “Farm Bill programs often appear focused primarily on the Midwestern region of the country,” Brossy said.

“There are clearly challenges all over the country,” said Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Oklahoma.  The committee visited Idaho at the invitation of Democratic Rep. Walt Minnick, who sits on the committee.  Republican Rep. Mike Simpson also attended the meeting.  Similar events are scheduled in other states across the country.

Simpson said that agriculture has long been critical to the state economy and state government.  He said when he started out in the Idaho Legislature, state tax revenues could be predicted by looking up the commodity prices of potatoes, wheat, and silver.  “Now Idaho has changed a lot and we’ve diversified, but agriculture is still the most important industry in Idaho,” Simpson said.

Leaders from various sectors of agriculture, including fruit growers, wine makers, and dairy producers said Congress needs to reform immigration to ensure they have enough workers.  “Failing to provide for orderly flows of greatly-needed workers has the potential to create enormous economic consequences for our industry and do very little to enhance our border protection,” said Adrian Boer, a Jerome dairy farmer with the Idaho Dairymen’s Association.

“What we need is a better identification system and a guest worker program,” said Kelly Henggeler, a fruit packer and grower from Fruitland.  “We lack sufficient legal labor to prune, pick, pack, and process our crop.  Without it, we could see the decline and outsourcing of the domestic apple industry.”  Henggeler and Boer both support legislation in Congress called the AgJobs Act that would change the guest worker program for agricultural workers and includes a method of earning a green card.

Neither Minnick nor Simpson are among the 63 sponsors of the AgJobs legislation, though Minnick said immigration changes are necessary.  “It is critical,” he said.  “The dairy industry, the grape industry, the apple industry, and various specialty crops — all are suffering mightily from the absence of skilled workers that would be available under a more enlightened immigration program.”

Changing immigration policy is separate from the Farm Bill, the stated topic of the meeting.  The Farm Bill authorizes many government farm support, conservation, energy, trade, marketing, food assistance, and rural development programs over several years.  The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the current Farm Bill, passed in 2008, includes $307 billion in federal spending through 2012, when it expires.

Producers in different sectors offered different ways that the next Farm Bill could help agriculture in Idaho.  Charles Lyons with the Idaho Cattle Association said he wants to get rid of ethanol subsidies, which drive up food costs for cattle.  “It jerked the guts out of the feeder industry here in Idaho,” he told members of Congress.  He also said conservation and environmental regulations that are part of the federal plan are extremely burdensome.  In his written testimony to the panel, he said that conservation dollars shouldn’t go to what he called extremist environmental groups that intend to lock up grazing land.

Scott Brown, president of the Idaho Grain Producers Association, said that Idaho farmers support the direct payments they can receive from the federal government.  “The direct payment has served as a stimulus program for Idaho’s many rural families and communities,” he said.  “Direct payments translate into farmers purchasing equipment, seed, chemicals, parts, and fuel.”  The chairman of the House committee, Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minnesota, has said that traditional farm subsidies may need to change in the next Farm Bill due to federal budget issues.  “Your decisions could have a profound ripple effect on the rural fabric of our country,” Brown said.

Minnick added that he thinks the next Farm Bill can be streamlined for farmers using government programs.  “Compliance with existing federal farm programs is far too paper-intensive and bureaucratic,” he said.  “We need to come up with a farm program which will allow our efficient producers to spend less time farming the government and more time farming the land.”

IdahoReporter.com spoke with Peterson after the meeting about why the House panel visited Idaho.

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