Impact of COVID-19 on Agriculture

Immigration Reform—Time to Get It Right

Viewpoints / The Zipline February 3, 2021

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We are long overdue for immigration reform that fixes our guest worker visa system and provides stability for those currently working in agriculture. In every region of the country I visit, I hear from farmers who are facing shortages and delays in hiring skilled employees to help keep up with the demand for safe, sustainable American-grown food, fiber and renewable fuel. Workforce shortages have been one of the greatest limiting factors for growth in U.S. agriculture, and it’s time we find a solution that works for all.

It’s good to see renewed energy and enthusiasm from the Administration around addressing this complex issue. Farm Bureau has long called for immigration reform that addresses the needs of our current farm employees while ensuring agriculture can continue to fill its workforce needs. It’s been about 35 years since Congress last passed a comprehensive reform bill, and a lot has changed in agriculture over that time. Responsible immigration reform will take all of us working together to get it right.

The current farm workforce is aging, and farmers are struggling to keep up with filling positions.

A robust agriculture industry is essential to our economy, national security and environmental sustainability. We must work together to ensure U.S. agriculture has the resources it needs to continue to provide and fill these essential farm jobs.

While advances in robotics have replaced some farm jobs, we need skilled employees to manage that equipment. Other farm jobs like tending livestock and pruning or picking fresh produce still require a human touch. Farmers pay competitive wages, in addition to added benefits under the H-2A program, but it’s a constant challenge to recruit and retain employees. I’ve met with farmers who have even added benefits such as on-site cafeterias and health clinics for employees to promote well-being and increase employee retention, and they still face workforce shortages. We also recognize not all growers are able to undertake these initiatives to attract new employees. Other smaller-sized farms have built long-term relationships with their employees as they work side-by-side building the business together. Yet, staffing remains a challenge.

Even with competitive wages and added benefits, there is less interest in farm jobs as folks leave rural areas and are more removed from the farm. Meanwhile the current farm workforce is aging, and farmers are struggling to keep up with filling positions. Margins are slim even in the best seasons on the farm, and farmers can find it hard to stay competitive with other industries and lower-priced agricultural imports.

Demand in the H-2A program has grown significantly in recent years, and there’s no sign of that slowing down. The number of certified H-2A positions has increased more than three times compared to 10 years ago, according to DOL data. But the program falls short in giving the flexibility employers and employees need. Delays in processing applications have often left farmers without the workers they need in time for harvest, even before the pandemic. Crops shouldn’t be left to rot while paperwork sits in an agency inbox.

U.S. agriculture needs a flexible guest-worker program that allows contract and at-will employment options that work for both seasonal and year-round needs on the farm. We also need to make sure wage requirements take into account the economic conditions of the agriculture industry and enable farms to remain viable. The American Farm Bureau is ready to work with the Administration and Congress to bring these long overdue reforms to our guest worker program to help provide long-term security to our employees, farm businesses and the rural economy.

There’s no question that farm work is tough—everyone puts in a full day’s work when it comes to tending and harvesting crops and caring for animals. Farmers know how hard this work is because we have invested our sweat and tears in the soil, often for generations. It’s time we find a solution that provides farmers, our employees and our families the stability we all need to keep America’s farms growing.

Zippy Duvall
President
twitter.com/@ZippyDuvall

Vincent “Zippy” Duvall, a poultry, cattle and hay producer from Greene County, Georgia, is the 12th president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

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