U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-NM, held a roundtable event for local farmers and production managers at Eastern New Mexico University on Oct. 24 in the Golden Student Success Center.
Udall shared with attendees the measures he had been taking to handle issues in the agricultural industry throughout New Mexico, explaining that he and his team have traveled the state, holding roundtable events to gain input on issues in order to create amendments for them.
Udall shared that New Mexico has one of the oldest average ages for farmers in the nation, so he is worried that new farmers aren’t coming into the business. He referenced the Farmers for Tomorrow Act, that’s purpose is to help new farmers get a start in agriculture to “keep the sector strong for generations to come.”
“We’ve got some very experienced people on the farms, but we want to make sure the folks are coming in behind them,” said Udall.
“There aren’t many producers that are encouraging their children to follow them in agriculture, simply because they don’t see a viable lifestyle for them long term,” said Patrick Kircher, a local farmer.
Kircher went on to say those who are seeking careers in agriculture have to have day jobs, because farming is basically just a hobby for them as it produces minimal financial results. Kircher also spoke of commodity prices, claiming that they hadn’t changed in 20 years, but the cost of production had multiplied. He emphasized that the reason people aren’t seeing an increase in the number of farmers or young farmers is because there’s no secure future for them in the industry.
Moving forward in the event, Rick Ledbetter, another local farmer and producer who serves on the soil and water conservation board, brought up the issue of farmers’ ability to find labor for their harvests.
“All Chile is hand harvested, and there’s no mechanical solution at this point,” said Ledbetter, adding that he believes many chile growers are backing away from the business because of the overall difficulty of getting the labor.
When the topic of immigrant workers arose, Ledbetter said, “If we get something solved on the immigration thing, I think that can help a lot.”
He went on to discuss how many farmers use immigrants for their harvests, but the penalty of hiring illegals was a problem.
“The incredible penalties of hiring an illegal scares me to death,” said Ledbetter.
“We’ve got to get this workforce issue right. There’s no way we want our producers going to jail,” said Udall.
Udall went on to say that the immigrant workforce is very important, and if the state were to get rid of them, it would go bankrupt.
“I can’t believe that we don’t understand the value of the immigration workforce that is out there,” said Udall, adding that he is co-sponsor of the agricultural worker protection program, which “protects immigrant farmers from deportation and provides a path to earn legal status and eventually citizenship.”
Udall ended the meeting with assurances to those in attendance that he and his team would work diligently to address and counter the issues that had been discussed.