Immigration reform can ease farm labor shortages

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It’s no secret that U.S. farmers have been burdened with ongoing labor shortages for years. The pain points of this issue include immigration laws in their current form and a declining interest in agricultural employment. COVID-related border closures compounded these issues, as farmers grappled with securing the farm labor necessary amid historic supply chain disruption.  

American farmers already shoulder an enormous amount of responsibility, from feeding a growing global population to protecting the land on which their livelihood relies. For many farmers, lack of access to quality farmhands is one of their primary challenges. Without the labor to harvest crops, their production potential is limited, and food waste is often created.  

But this responsibility shouldn’t be theirs alone to bear. That’s where immigration reform comes into the discussion.

Outside of the primary operator, the U.S. agricultural workforce is generally comprised of two groups — family members and hired workers. According to the 2017 ag census, there are an estimated 2.4 million hired farmworkers in the U.S. Of that pool, nearly three-fourths (73 percent) are foreign-born workers. According to the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), only an estimated 4 percent of farmworkers come from the current farmworker visa program known as H-2A, meaning that a majority of these workers are undocumented and that immigration in its current state is not meeting the labor needs of our farmers.  

The H-2A visa program (officially known as the H-2A Temporary Agriculture Program) provides temporary work authorization for foreign workers to enter the U.S. and work on agricultural operations for a period of up to 10 months. While the H-2A program does provide needed labor for farmers, one of its central limitations is that it only supports seasonal and temporary agricultural jobs and does not allow workers to remain for a full year. This limits program accessibility for many producers, particularly livestock and dairy operators, who need labor year-round. 

The H-2A program has provided some labor relief, with an 87 percent increase in applications from 2015 to 2020; however, it often comes at a high cost for farmers to participate. Overall, 47 percent of farmers report being “not at all satisfied” or only “slightly satisfied” with the H-2A program. In its current form, the H-2A program doesn’t meet the full labor needs of farmers and is both time-consuming and costly. For example, an AFBF farm labor study found that 72 percent of growers said their workers came an average of 22 days after they were needed.  

Because of these limitations, the majority of the farm community agrees that the current H-2A program — and immigration policies generally — must be reformed to provide more effective farm labor relief. 

One proposed change came in the form of the Workforce Modernization Act, which was introduced back in March 2021. Key initiatives of the bill include establishing a path to citizenship, H-2A program access beyond temporary and seasonal work and establishing minimum work hours. While lengthening the time workers can stay in the U.S. is a step in the right direction, industry groups like AFBF say that the legislation falls short of providing the support needed and believe protections should be put in place so the cost of pay rate increases and worker requirements does not fall entirely on the farmer.  

So, the question is: How can legislative reform help meet the needs of our farm communities? 

There are three key actions lawmakers can take to achieve this.

First, extend the length of time of the H-2A visas, which in their current form do not allow workers to stay long enough for livestock and dairy operators to be able to utilize the program. Extending the time H-2A workers are allowed to stay would benefit these producers immensely by providing more access to reliable farm labor. This is one aspect of the Workforce Modernization Act that most farm groups adamantly support.  

Second, simplify the hiring process through the H-2A program. The current H-2A process can be lengthy and confusing. Farm operators must submit a request 60 to 75 days ahead of when they need workers. Even after approval, it can take over 30 days for the visa to be approved. Often, employers need to hire lawyers to assist in the visa process. A new electronic platform — as proposed in the Workforce Modernization Act — could reduce the headaches involved in the application process and get farmworkers where they’re needed, when they’re needed.  

Third, reducing fees associated with the H-2A process and program requirements is necessary to ease some of the financial burdens on farmers.  

Farmers have enough challenges on their plate. Legislation should aim to take some of that responsibility off their shoulders, not add more to it. Because when American farmers thrive, we all win.

Curt Covington is the Senior Director of Partner Relations at AgAmerica, a nationwide agricultural land lender who has worked in agricultural banking since 1979. He is also the owner and operator of The Agricultural Lending Institute in Fresno, California.

Tags Agriculture dairy farmers dairy industry farm labor farm workers H-2A Visa immigrant labor immigration policy Immigration reform rural economies

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