When I was a young boy, my dad would take me around with him on the farm. And as I got older, I started taking on more jobs and more responsibilities. I’d be out milking cows before school and helping get other things done when I got home. I’ve loved the work for as long as I can remember. While that’s true for millions of farmers, fewer people are willing to do the work it takes to raise the food, fuel, and fiber we need.
A few weeks ago, I hosted Juan Cortina, president of Mexico’s National Agricultural Council, on my farm in Georgia. His organization is similar to the American Farm Bureau and works on behalf of Mexico’s farmers and ranchers. While discussing the challenges that faced members in our countries, I mentioned that the inability to find enough workers was our greatest challenge. And, to my surprise, he said that labor was also the most significant problem for farmers in Mexico.
Shortly after Mr. Cortina’s visit, I flew out to Oregon and Washington to meet with our members and hear their stories. It didn’t matter if the farmers I met with were dairying, growing tulips, pears, apples, cherries, blueberries or raspberries, they all said that their greatest challenge is finding workers.
Most of the fresh fruits and vegetables we find in our supermarkets, and canned and frozen ones too, have to be planted, cared for, and harvested by hand. Across the country, farmers and farm workers slowly make their way through the fields to ensure we can get the healthy and nutritious food we need. And in dairy barns, workers milk each cow two or three times a day.
On the slopes of Mt. Hood, I met with a group of pear growers who talked about the challenges they have finding workers. Some workers have lived in their community for decades and come back season after season. However, finding domestic workers becomes more difficult each year, leaving farmers to turn to H-2A workers from other countries to fill jobs on the farm. Nationwide, the use of the H-2A visa program has increased by 20% over the past five years, underscoring the domestic worker shortage.
In western Washington, I met with a group of farmers who grow raspberries, blueberries and strawberries. Like most growers, they’ve struggled for years to find the labor they need for all of their farm work, especially harvesting. So they’ve invested millions of dollars into mechanical harvesting techniques to reduce the number of workers they need during peak season, but that doesn’t eliminate the need for workers altogether on the farm. Machines can’t currently plant or care for many of the fruits, vegetables, and nuts we consume, meaning most plants are touched by human hands many times throughout the year.
Farm and ranch work is hard, takes long hours, and you have to get your hands dirty. But, it is rewarding, and often you can see the fruits of your labor, literally. On my trip to Oregon and Washington, I spoke with farmers and farmworkers who love their work. They all mentioned that they are proud to play their part in ensuring we all have the food we need. But they also said that we need to focus on solving the farm labor crisis once and for all. We desperately need our elected leaders to come to the table, leave politics at the door and find a solution.
Vincent “Zippy” Duvall, a poultry, cattle and hay producer from Greene County, Georgia, is the 12th president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.