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Trump-Backed Legal Immigration Cuts Could Wreck US Farming Industry

If Trump's immigration plans go through, your dinner will look very different.

by Demetria Irwin
Aug 8 2017, 4:41pm

Images via Wikimedia Commons and USDA.gov.

President Trump has announced his support of legislation that would cut legal immigration in half and drastically reduce the entrance of "unskilled" labor into the country. Such a policy would impact numerous industries, not the least of which being farming -- specifically specialty crop farming. Specialty crop farming includes fruits, vegetables, nuts, horticulture and nursery crops and the competitiveness of America's specialty crop industry has major implications for the economy.

VICE Impact spoke with Food and Water Watch's assistant director Patty Lovera, to find out more about specialty crop production and why it's vital to the economy, everyday life, and what the effect of Trump's immigration policies could have on this key industry.

VICE Impact: What are specialty crops and should I be afraid of them? They sound shady.

Patty Lovera: Basically, specialty crops are vegetables, fruits and nuts -- things that can rot. So, no need to fear them. Health-wise, everyone needs fruits and vegetables.

That doesn't sound very special. Why are they called specialty crops?

It is basically just Farm Bill jargon and a way to differentiate these crops from commodity crops. Farm policy for many generations has been dominated by commodity crops. Commodity crops (corn, wheat, soy beans) are things you can store like cotton and rice. Also, it's the commodity crop program that largely determines agricultural rules. Huge chunks of the Farm Bill are devoted to commodity crops.

What is the Farm Bill and why is it so focused on commodity crops?

The Farm Bill came about in the 1930s as part of President Roosevelt's New Deal. This was during the Great Depression and there was a lot of programming in particular for farmers in the Dust Bowl. They grew commodity crops like wheat, so that's where all the money and attention was placed.

Over the years, the Farm Bill stayed commodity crop-centric, but what types of policy changes are made depends on who sits on the agricultural committees in Congress.


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But whether it's a commodity crop or a specialty crop, it's all agriculture, right? Don't they all benefit from the money and attention?

Not at all. It's all agriculture, but commodity crop production and specialty crop production are completely different and they require different types of infrastructure, resources, and knowledge.

If you had a wheat farmer in Kansas and a strawberry farmer in California sit down and talk about farm practices, they would each learn a ton about farming because their practices are so different. And even if you stay in specialty crops, there are huge differences. The day-to-day operations of a small, family-owned apple orchard in upstate New York would not have a lot in common with a giant citrus plantation in Florida, for example.

But like you said before, everybody needs fruits and vegetables. Why are specialty crops still not getting enough attention today?

Our current farm policy is mired in politics. For decades in the Senate, it has been people from commodity crop states who are, of course, going to push for legislation that benefits their constituents.

How does climate change affect specialty crop production?

When California endured a five-year drought, heavily water dependent agricultural operations like almond and alfalfa farms got national attention. You had crazy headlines like "The Hipster Love of Almond Milk is Drying Out California." Of course that wasn't true, but media attention like that did lead to more nuanced dialogue about the importance of sustainability in specialty crop production. The drought also provided a practical example of how climate change impacts our lives. In a rational political climate, events like this could and should lead to appropriate policy changes.

Any discussion of farming in the US always brings up the topic of immigration.

Yes, a current hot topic surrounds the question of who is going to pick these crops? We are very dependent on immigrant labor. Specialty crop producers are screaming for policy changes to get them a steady supply of labor. Food has rotted in fields because no one could pick it. It's wasteful and makes food more expensive.

What can people do to ensure specialty crops get the attention they need?

Depending on where you live, you have an elected official who has something to do with the Farm Bill. Even if you don't live in farm country, the Farm Bill has an impact. Food stamps (SNAP), for example, come from the Farm Bill. It was tucked in the bill so the House would pass it. So, ask your representatives about where they stand on sustainable practices, funding, and topics like that.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.