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.