We hear a lot these days about the need to reduce food waste, and that is an important goal. Farmers certainly don’t want to see the product of their hard work wasted. A rotten head of lettuce in a consumer’s refrigerator is a loss of a couple of bucks. A whole field of produce that goes to waste because the farmer cannot hire enough workers to harvest it amounts to tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost income.
That’s the case with Burr and Rosella Mosby, zucchini farmers in Washington state. They say they’re losing money and it’s getting harder every year to find enough workers for harvest, even if they offer higher wages. And, of course, there is only so much a farmer can pay before it becomes unprofitable to grow a crop at all. If we don’t solve this problem, we’ll be importing more of our food. Many of the other jobs that support U.S. ag production—from transportation to equipment sales and maintenance—would disappear, too.
This is not a new problem. In fact, in 2014, the American Farm Bureau produced an economic study that found as much as 60 percent of U.S. fruit and vegetable production would move to other countries if there is more enforcement of worker eligibility requirements but no corresponding solution to problems with current agricultural labor programs—problems such as not getting approved for enough workers, or paperwork delays that result in workers showing up after crops are past their prime.
One solution that could be moving soon in Congress is a bill sponsored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte to allow currently undocumented farm workers to apply for visas that would allow them to work legally on our farms. Chairman Goodlatte’s bill also would allow, for the first time, dairy farms to participate in the labor program. The bill needs some improvements (raising a cap on the number of worker visas, for example), but it would be our best chance in years to make progress on an issue that is difficult but also so important to farmers, consumers who want their food grown in U.S. soil, and rural communities that benefit from the jobs that farms and ranches provide.
It is time for a solution to the ag labor problem, before more of our food—and the U.S. farms and ranches that produce it—goes to waste.
Vincent “Zippy” Duvall, a poultry, cattle and hay producer from Greene County, Georgia, is the 12th president of the American Farm Bureau Federation. You can follow him on Twitter @ZippyDuvall.