Beyond the Fencerows

Thanks to scientific innovation in agriculture, farmers and ranchers are using fewer resources to grow an abundant, sustainable food supply. But I wonder how far our new technology and techniques will take us if farmers are left without one of the most critical resources to keep our farms sustainable: a stable workforce.

Agriculture’s labor shortage is at a crisis level, with farmers like Burr and Rosella Mosby losing crops and income because there aren’t enough workers for harvest. Every year we hear stories of fresh produce rotting in the fields instead of feeding people, because farmers cannot find help or secure guest workers in time. Without relief, many farmers will have to scale back production or get out of farming altogether.

I think of farmers like Tim McMillan, who would like to sustain their farms to pass on to the next generation. Instead, they are left wondering if it makes sense to go on when they don’t have enough workers to plant, tend and harvest crops—and the problem gets worse every year.

The farm labor shortage also takes a bite out of our national economy. A study by the group New American Economy estimated that the shortage cost $3.3 billion in GDP growth in 2012 alone. As I’ve said many a time, we’re coming to a point where America will have to decide if we’re going to import workers or import our food. Increasing food imports means losing thousands of American jobs that are supported by agriculture. That same NAE study shows there would have been more than 89,000 additional jobs in 2012 if farmers had not faced workforce challenges.

Every time this topic comes up, there’s an outcry for farmers to pay more. But those complaints tend to come from those who don’t know the going rate for skilled farm work. For example, skilled workers harvesting specialty crops like apples and strawberries can earn well over $20 per hour when paid piece-rate wages. Under the current federal agricultural guest worker program, H-2A, farmers pay the Adverse Effect Wage Rate as a baseline which, depending on the state, can be anywhere from 9 percent to 90 percent higher than the state minimum wage. That’s on top of providing free housing to workers and paying for their travel from their home country. H-2A requires employers to post job openings to make sure Americans get first crack at farm jobs. But as any farmer can tell you, the average American has little interest in farm work. Even with the higher wage rates and strict requirements, H-2A applications are on the rise. Certified positions in 2017 are up 20 percent compared to this time last year, which shows just how hard-pressed farmers are to find workers.

Farmers need a guest worker program that meets both their needs and farm workers’ needs, and brings stability to our food system. The AG Act, a bill sponsored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, is a good solution. It would create a new H-2C program for agriculture, allowing workers who are already on our farms—whom farmers have trained and come to know and depend on—to remain in the U.S. under the new H-2C visa. The bill could be improved. For example, the American Farm Bureau believes it should not limit the number of worker visas. But we support Chairman Goodlatte’s effort, because it opens the door for progress such as we haven’t seen in more than three decades of hemming and hawing on this issue.

Immigration reform is a tough issue, but we cannot avoid it any longer. Instability in our farm workforce places American jobs and American-grown products at risk. We need members of Congress to work together to ensure Americans have access to a safe, sustainable supply of U.S.-grown food.