East End farmers didn't mince words at a recent roundtable event, pointedly criticizing Rep. Tim Bishop and prompting testy exchanges from both sides on topics ranging from immigration to government spending.
About two dozen members of the Long Island Farm Bureau attended Saturday's event at the bureau's Calverton office, where they grilled Bishop (D-Southampton) about immigration, increased federal inspections they fear will stifle local agriculture and the federal government's role in jump-starting the economy.
One of them was Bob Van Bourgondien, a flower grower from Southold, who accused Bishop of being "out of touch" with how scared businesses are of the federal government.
But Bishop defended the government's role in the economic recovery and said residents would realize the effects of broad budget cuts brought by sequestration. "It might be very easy to knock government, but in the next several weeks, I think you'll see things government does that we take for granted," he said. "The best way to reduce our deficit is to put more people back to work."
Van Bourgondien disagreed, and Bishop responded by saying that private enterprise has $3 trillion worth of available capital. "They're sitting on it," he said. "Let's get them going."
When Van Bourgondien told Bishop American businesses are fearful of the government's plans and Bishop disputed that, Van Bourgondien told the congressman he was out of touch.
"I'm not out of touch," Bishop responded. "Are you kidding me? Look. We have to reduce our deficit; no question about it. But if your only goal is to reduce the spending, come with me to a senior center. Look those seniors in the eye and say 'we're only kidding' about commitments to Social Security and Medicare."
During the more than hourlong meeting, the growers also expressed concern about immigration, saying they would like changes to visa programs that allow more workers. And many complained the current education system pushes students to four-year colleges instead of also promoting trade schools, which often require fewer years of schooling and which the farmers said are more suitable for some students.
Several of the growers said they struggle to find students willing to pick weeds and work their way up. Young people today expect to get white-collar jobs and be "on easy street," said Lyle Wells, a vegetable farmer who lives in Riverhead.
Bishop said he wouldn't sacrifice higher education. "Access to education as an egalitarian enterprise is all about the American dream," he said, adding his father worked 90 hours a week to put his children through school. "I ain't on easy street," Bishop said. "But I do get to wear a white shirt."