Agriculture labor requirements and the threat of higher food prices and rising imports took center stage when Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack pushed immigration reform during a Wednesday morning press conference. Vilsack argued against smaller, incremental reform as inadequate, saying a “comprehensive” approach is needed.

“We need to stop threatening the competitiveness of our agricultural economy with this broken immigration policy. … I’ve met farmers and ranchers all over this country who are worried about the broken immigration system. They’re unable to find the necessary number of farm workers and sometimes they struggle to verify their work authorization papers. All the while, they wonder if they’ll have enough help for the next harvest,” he said.

Obviously wary of the rancor and divisiveness previous immigration reform efforts exposed across the country, Vilsack also repeatedly called for a “civil” debate.

The Obama administration’s agitating for congressional action on immigration will be welcome news for many in agriculture. Farmers say securing migrant labor too often involves needless red tape and prohibitive time and monetary costs.

The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture has alsocalled for changes in alien worker laws, saying the current system is “untenable in the long-run.”

For more, see Calls increase for legal migrant worker program “fixes.”