By Cyndie Shearing Sirekis
During a recent trip to Buffalo for the Ag Media Summit, a gathering of professionals in the agriculture publications industry, I decided to forgo an optional tour of Western New York in favor of a family visit.
Having grown up on a dairy farm in Wyoming County, I was delighted when conference attendees said they enjoyed both the scenic beauty of Western New York and the vibrant agricultural community it supports.
The diversity of New York agriculture is tremendous, including dairy, beef, sheep, goats, poultry, fruits, vegetables, honey, wine, maple syrup, timber and more. Dairy in particular is poised for growth, due to the ever-growing popularity of Greek yogurt and the ability of farmers to supply its main ingredient – milk.
New York farmers are justified in being proud of the important role they play as food providers for people not just within the state, but all around our nation and even the world.
But as the tour attendees discovered, the pride felt by area farmers is tempered somewhat by concerns about having enough labor to milk the cows, care for the livestock and pick the crops.
My dad no longer farms but remains friends with many farmers. They tell him that difficulty in finding American-born workers to work on farms and in fields is all too common, which is why they hire immigrants.
Hiring immigrants helps. But unless Congress takes action soon on agricultural labor reform, hiring immigrant labor for farm work may not be an option. The jobs in agriculture and related industries and the communities they support are in danger of disappearing forever. And tour buses filled with visitors marveling at the wonders of Western New York agriculture will become just a distant memory.
The debate about whether foreign workers will grow and harvest our food has been settled. They’re doing it now. Whether foreign workers will do that work here or in their home countries is the issue now at stake.
Farmers are a resilient bunch. They will do whatever it takes to keep their farms going: work longer hours, cut expenses to the bone and sacrifice to make ends meet.
My dad’s family started out as potato sharecroppers in the 1920s. They worked hard, scrimping and saving, eventually buying their own land and starting a dairy. They made it through the Depression, World Wars I and II, the farm crisis of the 1980s and more.
But for my family members still farming, the labor situation is something they – and the farmers hosting the tour – need help to overcome. It would be a shame for agriculture, which is both a source of food and a point of pride for Western New York, to fade away.
Cyndie Shearing Sirekis, a native of Wyoming County, is director of news services at the American Farm Bureau.