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Farm Labor Shortage Reaching Crisis

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San Angelo, CA (Abilene-Reporter News, June 22, 2016):  The age-old problem of a shortage of farm labor — now held up by visa backlogs — is fast approaching crisis proportions again, all but guaranteeing that crops will rot in the field on many farms this year, said Vincent "Zippy" Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

"Many farmer members have called us and state farm bureaus asking for help," Duvall said. "They face serious hurdles in getting visas for workers in time to tend and harvest this year's crops. Paperwork delays have created a backlog of 30 days or more in processing H-2A applications at both the Department of Labor and United States Citizenship and Immigration Services."

Duvall said the Labor Department too often fails to comply with rules that require it to respond to farmers' requests before crews are needed.

"Crops can't wait on paperwork," he said. "DOL is routinely failing to approve applications 30 days prior to the day farmers need workers. That delay, coupled with delays occurring at USCIS, places farmers in an impossible situation."

An estimated 583,000 workers were hired directly by farm operators on the nation's farms and ranches during the week of Jan. 10-16, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service. For the week of April 10-16, 703,000 workers were hired.

Wage rates for hired workers in the Southern Plains averaged $11.83 per hour; nationally, the average wage was $12.83 per hour.

Seasonal farm labor is a necessity, from the truck farms of South Texas to the big farms of California.

Landmark GMO Labeling Bill

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Washington, DC (Agri-Pulse, June 23, 2016):  A landmark Senate agreement on national disclosure standards for genetically engineered foods would allow companies to disclose GMO ingredients through digital codes rather than on-package language or symbols.

The agreement, reached between Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and ranking Democrat Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, also would use a narrow definition of genetic engineering that would exempt the newest biotech methods such as gene editing from the national disclosure standards.

Both the definition and the option for digital codes rather than on-package labeling represent major victories for farm interests, biotech developers and food companies that have long resisted mandatory GMO labeling out of fear that it would stigmatize the technology.

The legislation, which will need 60 votes to pass the Senate, would nullify Vermont's first-in-the-nation GMO labeling law, which takes effect July 1, and would bar any other state from enacting labeling requirements that differ from the federal standards.

Under the legislation, most food companies would have the option of disclosing GMO ingredients through either a digital, smartphone code, the industry's preference, or through an on-package symbol or language that the Agriculture Department would approve. The code would be accompanied by: "Scan here for more food information."

Farmers' Markets Changing

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Washington, DC (Washington Post, June 21, 2016):  For Zach Lester, co-owner of Tree and Leaf Farm in Unionville, Va., farmers markets have traditionally been a gathering of the tribe as much as a collection of freshly harvested fruits and vegetables. They've been a place where true believers could make their weekly investment in the future of local and sustainable agriculture.

But in recent years, Lester has noticed a shift in the markets, especially at the Dupont Circle FreshFarm Market, where he once could expect to generate $200,000 or more a year in gross sales. "The customers have changed," says Lester, who runs Tree and Leaf with his wife, Georgia O'Neal. "A lot of people that walk through markets are not shopping. They're there to meet. They're there to socialize."

They're there to eat and drink, not shop for ingredients.

These new farmers market visitors tend to be young. They arrive for a bite or some booze, maybe a pizza at Red Zebra or a bottle of gin from One Eight Distilling. They're "shopping with the eyes," says Lester, "and they don't care about the season."

The change in market demographics, Lester says, has affected Tree and Leaf's sales, which have dropped by as much as $50,000 annually at the Dupont market compared with his peak years in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Other farmers share similar tales: Heinz Thomet, co-owner of Next Step Produce in Southern Maryland, says his sales at Dupont have dipped as much as 50 percent from their peak. Hana Newcomb, co-owner and manager of Potomac Vegetable Farms in Virginia, says sales have dropped 30 percent in recent years at its farmers market stands, including ones in Takoma Park, Md., and Arlington, Va.

Big Agri-Tainment at Fair Oaks

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Fair Oaks, IN (Agri-Pulse  June 22, 2016):  How do you get more young people interested in agriculture and ultimately, careers in our industry?

There are numerous efforts underway, starting in elementary school with teachers who have embraced "Ag in the Classroom," and extracurricular programs like 4-H, FFA, and in college, Agriculture Future of America.

One of the newest outreach efforts is sure to become a "must-see" attraction for anyone wanting to better understand modern farming and its associated career opportunities. It's WinField's Crop Adventure - the latest addition to Fair Oaks Dairy Adventure and Pork Adventure.

In case you've never been to Fair Oaks, it's the brainchild of a group of dairy farmers who decided to build a 3,000 cow dairy farm that's open to schoolchildren and the general public.

At Fair Oaks, located in Indiana about halfway between Chicago and Indianapolis on an exit off of I-65, you can watch a dairy calf being born while the staff describes everything from breeding to birthing to milking. That was in the original Dairy Adventure. Later, more attractions were added to the complex, including a climbing wall in the shape of a milk bottle, rope courses, outdoor play areas and the Farmhouse restaurant.

Rights for Contract Farmers

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Washington, DC (National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, June 20, 2016):  Nestled against the George Washington National Forest, in the quiet town of Upper Tract West Virginia, contract poultry farmer Eric Hedrick struggles to keep his family, and his 315,000 birds, healthy and fed. The largest single-owner producer in West Virginia, Hedrick has been a "contract grower" for Pilgrim's Pride (the second largest poultry producer in the country) for 10 years. For the last six of those years, Hedrick has risked his livelihood to bring attention to the abusive practices of the contract industry.

Yesterday, as part of that effort, Hedrick joined with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI-USA), and the Government Accountability Project (GAP) to deliver his petition, signed by 62,346 concerned advocates, urging Congress to allow the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to finalize rules protecting the rights of contract farmers like himself.

"I took a major risk in coming forward: most farmers in my situation are afraid to speak out against company wrongdoing because the poultry industry and its lobby are so powerful," said Hedrick. "But I believe farms should be able to stand good for themselves, contract farmers should be able to make a living without fear of company retaliation. I have funneled my life savings and my kids' life savings into our farm just to stay afloat. This is not a hobby operation, this is my full-time job, my only job."

Contract farmers are responsible for the health and quality of the animals they raise, but they don't own them. Pilgrim's Pride owns Hedrick's chickens, sets the terms for how they're raised, decides which inputs will be provided by whom, and determines how he will be paid. Under this system, the farmer owns everything that costs money (the chicken houses, the land, and the equipment), while the corporate integrator owns what makes money - the chickens. According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, 96% of chickens produced in the United States are raised under such contract provisions.

Impact of Meat and Poultry Industry

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Albany, GA (Growing America, June 16, 2016):  The U.S. meat and poultry industry accounts for $1.02 trillion in total economic output or 5.6 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), according a new economic impact analysis conducted by John Dunham & Associates for the North American Meat Institute (NAMI).

The meat and poultry industry is responsible for 5.4 million jobs and $257 billion in wages, the report found. An estimated 527,019 people have jobs in production and packing, importing operations, sales, packaging and direct distribution of meat and poultry products. Wholesaling directly employs an estimated 232,418 individuals in all 50 states, and 1.11 million employees' retail jobs depend on the sale of meat and poultry products to the public. All totaled, the meat and poultry industry (packers, processors, wholesalers and retailers) directly employs 1.9 million people, paying $71.63 billion in wages and benefits.

In addition, approximately two million full-time equivalent jobs are created in firms that supply goods and services to the meat and poultry industry. This includes people working in industries as broad as real estate services, trucking and container manufacturing. An additional 1.57 million people have jobs throughout the economy that depend on the re-spending of wages by meat and poultry, as well as supplier industry employees. These are real people with real jobs ranging from restaurant workers to automobile mechanics, to bakers and refrigerator manufacturers.

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