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Transcript of Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns Speech to the National Council of Agricultural Employers

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Location: Washington, DC


Transcript of Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns speech to The National Council of Agricultural Employers Washington D.C. - January 25, 2006

SEC. MIKE JOHANNS: Good morning everyone. Do not let me interrupt your breakfast. This was placed in front of you, some of you, and the rest of you here pretty soon. We can visit, and you can eat breakfast at the same time. In fact, when I was the governor of Nebraska, of course, I worked on a daily basis with the legislative body. And I'd oftentimes start my speeches by saying, you know go ahead, keep eating, don't pay any attention to me. I'm used to it.

[Laughter]

But I do have a few things that I want to visit with you about today, and then what I'd like to do-- I'd be happy to take some questions. I'll be very pleased to do that.

Now I look around the room and I see cameras everywhere, I see people from the media, and we need to start out by asking, which one of you has attracted all of this attention? All right?

[Laughter.]

It is good to be here. Mention was made that I grew up on a dairy farm. Just kind of glancing around I notice puzzled expression or two. You're wondering where that dairy farm was at. So I'll start out, I'll kind of clarify that. That farm was actually near Osage, Iowa. You're still puzzled. I can see it on your face, so I better clear up where Osage, Iowa, is at or you'll be thinking about that while I'm trying to visit with you. Osage is actually south of Stacyville and St. Ansgar, and it's straight east of Manly. So now you know where Osage, Iowa, is at.

[Laughter.]

Now Dale and Mike, thank you very much. It is good to be here. Happy New Year to all of you, and it's very good to have you in Washington. I do appreciate the opportunity for us to get together here, talk about some issues that are important to you, to talk about some issues that we might be working on together in the weeks and months ahead.

I specifically want to focus my comments today on an issue that you've worked on diligently for a long time, and I know you're hoping that at some point there's a legislative break-through here, and that's the whole issue of labor and immigration reform. We all know they are very complex issues. They're sensitive issues. There's probably very few issues that get as much attention when a debate starts. They demand exactly what we are doing here today, keeping the door open to discussion and dialogue. And that is something that I certainly value and appreciate.

As you know, in the past year we worked hard at USDA to generate the same kind of openness that I just referred to. In this regard we did something that I'm not sure had been done before by a Secretary of Agriculture. We held listening sessions across the United States for debate and discussion about the next Farm Bill, which will really kick into gear a year from now probably in 2007. But we wanted to make sure that we were out in front.

We decided that the best way to start this discussion and to build a debate, if you will and to generate ideas, is to literally go to the people that are most affected by that legislation, people on the ground. So we held these forums. I did over 20 of them myself. That would be about 65 hours of listening to farmers and ranchers. It was a great experience. As I got around the room today I had a number of you come up and say, I was at your Farm Bill Forum in whatever state.

So we appreciate your participation.

My feeling is that American agriculture just does a great job. Every single day it provides safe and very abundant food supply for our consumers and for that matter much of the world. There's no better way to understand this industry, its issues, its concerns, than to get out of Washington, to move out of the Beltway and start the conversation and hear what folks are saying.

What I heard was very thoughtful, very insightful, and it helped us think about upcoming farm policy and the negotiations that will surround that.

I can tell you that our farmers and ranchers in the United States, they see the big picture. They recognize that if U.S. agriculture is to thrive in this century we must develop foreign and domestic markets, because we have great productivity. Look at our exports of horticultural products for example. The end of Fiscal Year 2005 had a record $14.5 billion. We're projecting this year another record of about $16 billion. If we continue setting records, this sector has a lot to gain from trade liberalization.

That's why Ambassador Rob Portman and I have worked so hard relative to the WTO process and most specifically and most recently the WTO Ministerial in Hong Kong, which took place in December of last year.

Ambassador Portman has left for Switzerland, and I will be leaving later on today to continue to push for a successful conclusion at the Doha Round.

Our goal is to realize the administration's commitment to free and open trade and to level the playing field for America's farmers and ranchers on the world stage. But to maintain the production levels that stand behind these growing export numbers, we need something that you are very committed to, and that is a dependable workforce here at home.

This really is the foundation of American agriculture. As mechanized as we have become, we still recognize that this is a very labor-intensive business.

American agriculture is the strength of our nation's food security and something that producers talked to us a lot about at our Farm Bill listening sessions. Los Cruces, New Mexico, one speaker said, and I'm quoting, "Agriculture will not survive without the millions of farm workers in this country." Unquote.

And Dale, in your great state of North Carolina speakers were proud that agricultural production is the third most diverse in the nation. That would include everything from tobacco to Christmas trees, sweet potatoes, vegetables, and livestock operations.

One speaker said, and again I'm quoting, "While this diversity in ag production is a blessing and a tremendous asset, it also brings with it a unique set of challenges," unquote. Our diversity of agriculture products is matched only by the wonderful diversity of our people. People of all ethnic backgrounds make up the agricultural workforce in the United States. It's something to be proud of, and it is something that we need to protect.

I am here today to do everything I can to keep this dialog open, to make sure that the door between myself and the administration is wide open in terms of this dialog.

I know that labor costs are a major part of production cost for some farms. The proceeds, 40 percent for many horticultural crops and 20 percent for tobacco and berries-- it's a labor-intensive business.

I also know that labor availability ranks right at the top in terms of a critical concern for your industry. Our impressive production and export statistics are only as good as the strawberries picked, and picked in a very critical window of time, and the tomatoes that are harvested at their peak, not abandoned because there was not enough labor to do the work.

Last fall the Associated Press reported growers in Yuma, Arizona area were concerned about a 20 percent shortfall in the number of laborers that were needed to bring in the harvest. And the California Farm Bureau Federation, referring to the Yuma area in California's Imperial Valley said, again I'm quoting, "The labor shortage is the worst we've ever seen and it threatens farmers' ability to fully harvest this year's winter vegetable crop," unquote.

According to Imperial County Farm Bureau leaders a number of factors created the very difficult outcome. A problematic immigration system, increased border enforcement, competition for workers from other industries -- they talked about that this morning at our table -- and the lack of a viable guest worker program.

Together, California and Arizona account for about 58 percent of the nation's production of fresh market vegetables and over 60 percent of the value. It's a significant part of our industry.

These and other labor-intensive states typically need large numbers of workers for short, intermittent periods at critical times. There just isn't flexibility in the times during planting and the growing season but especially at harvest. Yet of interest, our National Agricultural Statistics Service, which tracks farm employment, has found a drop in hired farm labor in California during these peak times during the past three years. At the same time there's been an increase in the rest of the country--that competition for labor that we see.

To what extent is this employment decline in California caused by the availability of workers? It's hard to say. It's hard to say what impact undocumented workers have here because we don't have a good estimate of the number of workers in the U.S. who are undocumented obviously. But there are many estimates out there, and pick your estimate whatever it is. We recognize that labor is a key to your industry.

The President has a proposal, and let me visit with you a little bit about that. The President as you know has been very, very committed to immigration reform. He has a comprehensive sense of the complex mix of factors and obviously he would if he was the governor of Texas, a border state.

The President's goal is to provide security for our nation, enjoin the needs of our vital industries with the needs of people who want to work. The President's proposal would protect the homeland by controlling our borders. We all want that. It would link to efforts to control our border through agreements with countries whose nationals participate in the program. The temporary worker program would create a more prosperous American economy by matching a willing worker with a willing employer. The President has made clear that every American who wants a job should have one. I don't believe we debate that. Before making job offers to foreign workers, employers would have made every reasonable effort to fill those positions here. Having met these conditions, the temporary worker program is a clear and a very streamlined and efficient pipeline to a labor supply for you, for American employers.

But the Temporary Worker Program goes beyond border control and the economy. It is also a compassionate approach to protecting all workers in America with labor laws, the right to change jobs, to fair wages, and healthy work environment. As a humanitarian nation, ladies and gentlemen, we know that illegal immigration can create an underclass of workers, afraid, and vulnerable to exploitation. His program would be open to new foreign workers and to the undocumented men and women now employed in the United States.

It would allow workers now holding jobs to come out of hiding and participate legally in America's economy. President Bush said it best, and I'm quoting, "We're a nation of law, we're also a compassionate nation. We've got to treat people with respect and dignity," unquote.

The President is clear that he doesn't support amnesty. He has been clear about that from the start. And the program would require temporary workers to return to their home countries at some point. The Temporary Worker Program would improve on the H2A Program, which isn't widely used in agriculture because it's complex and it's costly. Congress is also interested in reforming existing Temporary Worker Programs and is working on somewhat of a parallel track with a piece of legislation you're very familiar with, Ag Jobs.

I want to tell you, many provisions of Ag Jobs are consistent with the President's view. We recognize that there are many positions in this debate. But we also know that we can't enforce our immigration laws until we create the Temporary Worker Program. We need a comprehensive approach that is broad as the issues involved. That's what the President has proposed, and I want to assure you he will work with you and Congress so that he can sign, a comprehensive immigration reform bill into law this year.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me just wrap up my comments and say, thank you for having me join you today. This kind of discussion is what America is about. It is about keeping our borders safe and improving the lives of those who depend upon agriculture. Thank you very, very much.

[Applause.]

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