What agriculture needs now is more labor

What agriculture needs now is more labor
© Getty Images

Those of us living and working in rural and small town America have a message for our city cousins. We need workers and we need them now. Whether we’re making maple syrup in Vermont, picking apples in Washington, harvesting grapes in California, milking cows in Wisconsin, processing peaches in Georgia, feeding pigs in Iowa, packing pickles in Michigan or trail-driving in Colorado, we need access to a dependable source of ag labor. We’ve become increasingly dependent over the years on migrant labor, legal and illegal, to help run our farms, ranches, processing plants and service industries. Therein lies agriculture’s labor woes. Sourcing legal migrant labor is getting harder and harder for America’s food producers.

Why don’t we hire local workers from the community? We wish we could. Our neighbors don’t want to work under farm conditions for the prevailing pay scale. In fact, we are required to advertise and offer jobs to local residents before we can qualify to hire temporary migrant workers under the Labor Department’s H-2A program. Agriculture employers have not experienced much success hiring local labor for many years. Unfortunately, most domestic workers don’t show up for the job, or when they do, they tend quit within a few days. Jobs in agriculture are physically demanding, conducted in all seasons and are often transitory.

ADVERTISEMENT
The Department of Labor’s H-2A agriculture worker program is slow, burdensome, bureaucratic and bound with red tape. Stories are plentiful about crops rotting in the field because migrant workers farmers are expecting are delayed by a glitch in the H-2A system. The White House has ordered the Department of Labor to make the H-2A program more responsive and efficient but growers haven’t seen measurable results yet.

 

The H-2A program was ill-designed for agriculture in the first place; it is not nimble and flexible enough to serve small farmers or to move large numbers of workers farm-to-farm quickly enough to meet harvest-time demands. A total program overhaul is needed specifically for agriculture to provide access to a stable, secure and legal guest worker program now and in the future. And, a provision that permits guest worker employment on year-round agricultural operations. And a way for undocumented guest workers to come out of the shadows, secure legal work status and continue the jobs they’ve become proficient doing.

Are giant farms and robots the future of food production in the United States? If farmers and ranchers cannot get the labor they need to continue operating, their major options will be to sell or lease to a larger operation that solves its labor problems by mechanizing. Already robots are milking the cows on some giant dairy farms. Have you seen the finger-machines picking berries in the Pacific Northwest? Or the robotic weed-picker in the giant urban vegetable farm warehouse? If our urban and suburban neighbors want to preserve America’s small and mid-size farm structure, help us pass ag worker legislation now.

Unfortunately, any immigration legislation is a steep climb. Congress has been unable to agree on broad comprehensive immigration reform. Unfortunately, Congress has not been able to agree on much-needed narrow specific reform either. Both sides of the aisle are proficient at holding targeted immigration proposals hostage as trading bait for political advantage with other immigration provisions. Yet both Democrats and Republicans proclaim the dire need for a legal, logical, effective guest worker system for agriculture. Why can’t our policymakers on the Hill play bipartisan-nice long enough to pass an ag worker bill?

House Republican leaders have promised to have a bill on the House floor in July that addresses the farmers’ urgent needs for more workers. Agriculture is fearful this attempt too will end up as hostage to additional partisan political demands. Members of Congress, is it possible, for just one day, to plow down politics and partisanship to give agriculture a way forward to do what it does best: produce safe and affordable food for all America and much of the world?

Burton Eller is legislative director for the National Grange, the nation's oldest general farm and rural public interest organization with more than 2,000 affiliated local, county and state Grange chapters across the U.S.