By Bob Stallman
For far too long, farmers and ranchers have had to struggle to make sure that they have a legal, reliable supply of workers. The reality has been a daunting, broken system, riddled with shortcomings that have resulted in labor shortages, lost crops, bureaucratic nightmares and neighbors competing with one another to get the farm hands they need.
Farmers from around the country all feel the pain. From Washington state apple growers to New York dairy producers, there is an across-the-board shortage of labor for hire. Agriculture needs and deserves a legal, stable workforce, and Farm Bureau has a plan.
Flexibility and Stability Matter
Farm Bureau, along with other organizations in the agricultural community, is working on a solution for farmers and ranchers in all sectors, in all regions and for all commodities. What Farm Bureau is bringing to the discussion is a plan that we think will accommodate all of agriculture—from a grower who needs to hire harvesters for only a few days, to a dairy that needs a workforce 365 days of the year. The crux of Farm Bureau’s plan is to establish and implement a new visa program that would give both employers and employees stability and flexibility into the future, while also addressing the current workforce that has contributed to our farms and communities. Both elements are necessary to provide a long-term, stable and legal workforce.
Building on how the domestic market currently operates, farmers would be permitted to offer migrant laborers either a contract or at-will work. Similarly, workers would be able to choose their form of employment. With a contract, both employers and workers would be provided longer-term stability, and the worker could have a visa term of up to 12 months. On the other hand, the at-will option offers flexibility to employers who may just need a week’s worth of harvesting, while allowing workers the portability to work at other seasonal jobs for up to 11 months. This program reflects real-life workforce challenges and provides both the flexibility and stability that domestic workers enjoy.
Just as important, the plan would allow key migrant workers—those who have been working in U.S. agriculture for a defined period, as well as those who are in management and other key positions at a farm—the ability to stay in the U.S. and continue to work in the agriculture sector.
Since its inception, the H-2A temporary agricultural worker program has been riddled with problems, creating more challenges than providing solutions. Because of the diverse special labor needs within farming, the program has been difficult for growers to use, is not even available to some sectors of agriculture like dairy and simply is not feasible in some parts of the country. Farm Bureau’s plan would remedy many of H-2A’s failings by offering real-world solutions that better meet both employers’ and workers’ needs. Over time, as farmers begin using the new visa program, we imagine H-2A will become obsolete.
A market-based, flexible agricultural worker program makes sense and is long overdue. It is important for workers, farmers and especially consumers that agricultural producers have access to a legal, stable workforce for the future. With all of agriculture working together, we are optimistic we can offer Congress a reasonable, practical, common-sense solution that works for growers while respecting the rights of workers. It is time to move the discussion forward and find a solution that works for all farmers and ranchers.
Bob Stallman serves as president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.