Let’s solve agriculture’s labor crisis

By Gene Hall

Agriculture’s shortage of labor is two things: a potentially devastating crisis for our home-grown food supply, and an opportunity to compromise post-election.

There I go again with that ugly “C word.” I can hear now all the spines snapping into rigidity as folks prepare to enforce their own version of ideological purity. 

Agricultural labor is all tangled up in the issue of immigration. Seldom has there been a more important issue that people absolutely refuse to be reasonable about. I ran in this space last week an excellent description of the agricultural labor crisis from American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman. If we don’t find a way to get agricultural workers into the fields, dairy barns and livestock operations, crops and livestock will be grown in countries where there are workers.

The thing is, we have a bunch of folks willing to do these jobs. Most of them, however, are citizens of nations south of the Rio Grande. Most, in fact, are from Mexico. We must control our own borders and I can’t see any agreement on immigration that doesn’t guarantee that. However, there is absolutely no reason we can’t have a guest worker program—simple and enforceable—to bring these workers to jobs Americans, for whatever reason, will no longer do.

I’ve met a bunch of workers like these over the years. I don’t know their status—didn’t ask. What I do know is this: They are almost without exception good people; hard-working, family-oriented and people of faith. They mostly want to work, save and take their earnings home to their families. We need a legal way for them to accomplish that.

Someone will no doubt suggest that agriculture should pay more to get American workers into the fields. Well, we are talking about non-skilled labor here. The U.S., by design, has long practiced a “cheap food policy.” Our food system, with few buyers and many sellers, leaves farmers and ranchers as mostly “price takers,” not “price setters.” 

Agricultural jobs almost always pay more than minimum wage.  Every agricultural product has a level of labor cost at which there are many jobs.  If required to pay more than that, there are none.

There are many issues on which I believe we can compromise—post election of course—no matter who is president, no matter which party holds what house of Congress. This is just one of the most obvious.

Gene Hall

Public Relations Director
Texas Farm Bureau
I believe that the only hope for a food secure world is capitalism and reasonable profits for America’s farm and ranch families–that the first element of sustainability is economic survival.
Follow Gene on Twitter and Facebook.

One Response to “Let’s solve agriculture’s labor crisis”

  1. As the fourth-generation president of Dixondale Farms, I oversee the largest and oldest onion plant farm in the country. My family began growing onions at Dixondale in 1913 – we’ll celebrate our hundredth anniversary next year. The farm covers 2,200 acres in rural South Texas. Onion harvest begins the middle of November and continues until May. We also grow cantaloupes, harvested from May to July. From the fields of Dixondale Farms, it’s closer — in distance and in culture — to Mexico than to the nearest big city, San Antonio.
    As I walk through the fields, I talk to the workers in a mixture of English and Spanish, making sure I say ‘buenos dias’ to every employee every day. I respect these people and respect what they do. The problem is that there just aren’t enough people willing to do this type of work and a labor crisis is threatening my ability to keep my family farm operating. Most of our employees drive over 50 miles to work each day and we are proud that we are able to pay them an average wage of more than $12 per hour.
    I’m not the only farmer short on workers these days – far from it. Whether you live in Oregon, Washington, California or out east in states like Alabama and Georgia; whether you grow cherries, berries, apples, pears, tomatoes, asparagus, onions or ornamental trees – you’re in trouble if you tend or pick your crop mostly by hand as opposed to with machines. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, more than 50 percent of workers on U.S. farms are unauthorized immigrants, and in California, where farming brings in $38 billion in annual revenue, the number of workers available this year was said to be 20 percent below normal.

    There’s only one solution: a workable, streamlined, legal way to hire legal foreign workers. But after more than a decade of trying, Congress can’t do its job and create a lawful program that works.

    I think I’m pretty typical of farmers like me – small to medium-sized growers with labor-intensive crops. I look at my workers’ papers and fill out I-9 employment forms – after all, the last thing I want is to put my operation at risk by hiring an unlawful labor force. I am competing against oil companies in the Eagle Ford area for workers but I can only raise wages so much before my onions and melons become too expensive to sell. I’d like to hire Americans, and I understand why any temporary worker program would make me try before it let me hire Mexicans or Central Americans.

    But in the end, my crop won’t wait. If I can’t find enough willing and able U.S. workers, I need a fast, legal, reliable way to hire foreign farm hands. Of course, any program will come with some red tape – I understand that. But there are limits. The existing process for hiring agricultural guest workers – the H-2A program – won’t work in South Texas where there is a very limited supply of domestic workers. Each day I would have to allow the domestic workers that show up on that day do all the production they want to do before allowing the H-2A workers to even begin work.

    The good news: a lot of farmers in my situation are starting to come together and come up with ideas. Under pressure from growers, several bills were introduced in Congress this year to streamline or replace the H-2A program – and one case, to let currently unauthorized workers go home and return on H-2A visas. Nothing passed – Democrats and Republicans couldn’t agree. It’s an old impasse: most Democrats oppose temporary worker programs and prefer legalizing unauthorized workers, while most Republicans favor visa programs and oppose legalization. But the truth is we need both – an answer for workers already here and a new program. And several farm groups, including the American Farm Bureau, are developing compromise proposals.

    I don’t understand why this is so hard for Congress. But one thing I do know: what I’ll be looking for when I vote next month. Which of the candidates running for office in my district are ideologues and which are problem solvers? Which can put aside their partisan differences and the grandstanding we’re all so sick of and start finding answers for America? I and other American farmers have seen enough politics as usual. We need members of Congress who can come together around a deal that works – for American farmers, American workers and foreigners who want to work in the U.S. legally.

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