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Pa. farmers, Shuster weigh key ag issues

August 15, 2006|by DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Farmers had more on their minds than the current dry spell when members of U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster's Ag Advisory Committee met with him over lunch Monday.

Immigration policy, energy costs, international trade, biofuels, crop insurance and the American Horse Slaughter Protection Act were among the issues about a dozen members of the committee raised with Shuster, R-Pa. The congressman said he wanted to meet with the group to discuss farming issues as Congress prepares to draft a new Farm Bill in 2007.

Eugene Wingert of St. Thomas, Pa., said the committee represents agricultural interests of the 15 counties in the Ninth District and meets with Shuster once or twice a year.

In a district with many orchards and truck farms, migrant workers are important to the agricultural economy, said Lee Showalter of Five Forks Fruit in Waynesboro, Pa. Orchardists could face a labor shortage at harvest time if immigration laws are tightened without a guest worker program, he said.

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"There is no substitute for the human hand" for picking fruit, Showalter said.

Harvesting is labor-intensive, but lasts a relatively short time, so higher wages are not necessarily going to attract domestic labor, he said.

"At the end of the day, you're probably going to have something that deals with agriculture," Shuster said of immigration reform. While there should be provisions for guest workers, Shuster said tighter border security and enforcement of existing immigration laws have to come first.

Businesses should face penalties for hiring illegal immigrants, but Shuster said they should not be placed in the position of investigating the authenticity of workers' documents. Issuing biometric cards to legal immigrants, he said, would ease the verification process for employers, he said.

"Milk haulers from surrounding states are getting big-time fines" because of a quirk in transportation laws, said farmer Ray Diebold of Blair County. He said Pennsylvania has weight limits on milk trucks that are not imposed in other states, and Harold Shaulis of Somerset County said those limits restrict trade between farmers in the Northeast and the growing markets in the South.

Diebold said farmers could also benefit from biofuels, such as ethanol, not necessarily from the sale of corn to producers, but the byproduct distiller's grain, which is used as cattle feed. Shuster said a planned ethanol plant in the Cumberland Valley Business Park raised some concerns with him due to its proximity to a missile maintenance facility at Letterkenny Army Depot.

Crop insurance premiums have been on the rise, making it harder for farmers to pay for the insurance to cover their losses in drought years, said Fred Claycomb of Bedford County. Farmers use a lot of fuel for machinery and transportation, and several said energy prices are a concern.

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