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A petition urging Congress to tackle immigration reform that was started by a dairyman in Marsing is gaining momentum and support from dairymen in other parts of the state, according to industry officials.

Bob Naerebout, executive director of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, said the petition is starting to gain signatures online and via mail from dairymen in the Magic Valley, the hub of Idaho’s milk and cheese production. The petition, started this month, seeks to gather at least 10,000 signatures by the end of Feb., urging Idaho’s congressional delegation to address immigration reform, specifically the lack of a visa program that would provide year-round labor for the the industry.

“I had a lot of dairyman ask why we haven’t done this before and earlier,” Naerebout said.

The Marsing-based dairyman who started the petition declined to comment and provide his name for this story.

Dairies are not part of the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Workers program, which allows agricultural groups to bring foreign nationals into the country to fill temporary jobs. Other agricultural sectors in Idaho, such as hops growers, have utilized this program.

Naerebout said the the dairy industry isn’t necessarily looking to be included in the H-2A program, but seeks a viable visa program that would allow producers to bring in foreign labor to fill what the petition describes as a “massive shortage of workers.”

The petition also supports providing legal status for those already working at Idaho, though Naerebout clarified the industry is not asking for that status to be defined as citizenship.

Even if the petition drive falls short of its goal of 10,000 signatures, Naerebout said the organization will continue pressing for immigration reform this year.

“We’ll continue to work with other organizations that we work with to make immigration front and center,” he said. “Our best chance for getting it addressed is this year.”

Idaho Dairymen Association President, Tony Vanderhulst, owns a dairy near Wendell, said he supports the petition. He said if dairies don’t have enough labor, industries and companies that rely on mile, like cheese and yogurt factories, could feel the impact.

“If the dairy industry doesn’t have the labor it needs it will affect the Chobanis of the world,” he said.

At the moment, his dairy has enough employees, but he said the “labor pool is tightening up.”

“We’re sitting okay, but I have friends who are short 3 or 4 people,” he said. “Winter’s been rough.”

Olivia Weitz is the Canyon County and city of Caldwell reporter. She can be reached at 465-8107 or oweitz@idahopress.com. Follow @oliviaweitz1.

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