“We are excited,” said John Lohr, the national president of NASCOE. We have taken a look at the Senate proposal and we are interested in a role for FSA county offices. We have the largest federal footprint in rural America. We look forward to working with Congress for the best possible agricultural labor program.”
The immigration reform proposal gives the responsibility for determining the cap on immigrant visas to the Agriculture secretary. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who played a key role in negotiating the farm worker section of the proposal, said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing today that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsackwill make available his Farm Service Agency” for implementation of the farm labor program.
Vilsack told reporters recently that he could foresee USDA offices playing a role in collecting the data an keeping track of the workers.
Western Growers CEO Tom Nassif and other farm leaders insisted that USDA should be in charge of determining the size of the labor pool rather than the Labor Department, which will retain jurisdiction over worker fairness and safety enforcement.
Chuck Conner, a former Agriculture deputy and acting secretary who is now the president of the National Council of Farmer Co-operatives, said this week that farmers would be comfortable reporting the data to the county offices because they have long relationships with them.
There are FSA offices in almost every agricultural county in the country, although in recent years there have been pressures to combine the smallest county offices. Lohr, for example, works in an office in Greensburg, Pa., that covers two counties, Westmoreland and Fayette. NASCOE has 7,000 members.
The county office structure was set up in the 1930s when Congress and the Franklin Roosevelt administration established the modern farm program. The county offices are technically run by committees of local farmers and their primary job is to certify that people who claim to be farmers are farmers and are eligible for federal farm programs and subsidies. The FSA provides the money to pay the employees, who have most of the benefits of federal workers.
Lohr noted that farmers file their crop reports and applications for subsidies in the county offices. Filing the labor rights would follow right along the lines of what we have been doing the total of our existence,” he said.
But he also maintained that taking on immigration implementation“will require additional resources.”
Although high commodity prices have meant that the government has paid out less in farm subsidies in recent years and NASCOE has proposed taking over administrative functions for crop insurance and conservation programs, Lohr said that the county offices are still busy with applications for the direct payments program and other subsidy programs. In May, he noted, the county offices expect to implement a new sign-up for the Conservation Reserve Program.
Lohr also noted that staffing levels in FSA were cut by 12.5 percent a few years ago and that in anticipation of the sequester, FSA imposed a hiring freeze on the county offices. FSA has not yet informed county employees about how many days or hours they will be furloughed under the sequester, Lohr said.