Farmers struggle to find immigrant labor supply

“Imagine going to bed at night and not knowing if you’re going to have enough people to help pick your crops.” That’s how Bernie Thiel, a farmer from Lubbock, Texas, describes the challenge farmers face in finding enough labor to run their operations.

Farmers in the south typically use a lot of immigrant labor, but it’s become harder to find the help they need. This is why agriculture across the country is watching the nation’s immigration debate, and wondering if workers will be available in the future.

Bernie Thiel, Jr.

Bernie Thiel, Jr., farms near Lubbock, TX, and is having a hard time finding enough labor to complete his harvests every year (photo from oklahomafarmreport.com)

“Being in the business as long as I have, I’ve got people who’ve worked for me for 25 to 35 years,” said Thiel. “These are laborers who come from Mexico every year, and they’ve shown up for a long time. The problem is my labor force has gotten older and harder to come by now.”

Said Thiel; “There’s no new generation of laborers since the Reagan years, when we got amnesty in 1986. That’s where a lot of the hands I’m using now came from. I do get a few of my hired hands that have families and will come over and help.”

“As far as finding help locally, it’s virtually impossible,” said Thiel. “I do advertise on the radio. I had it on two Mexican-American stations all summer long, from the start of the season to the end. When the season ended up, I didn’t have one hand from those advertisements, and never kept a hand that did show up for more than two weeks.”

Other industries have begun to compete for immigrant labor, and it’s affecting farmers all over the country.

“In the last few years, we’ve had a demand for more laborers because of the oil industry,” said Bernie. “That has pulled some of my labor. Not a great deal of it, but my gosh, they start their workers at 18 to 20 dollars per hour.”

“Reading through some of the different periodicals, it’s not just me,” said Thiel. “This is happening nationwide. I read an article about a strawberry farmer in

Strawberry farming is an expensive proposition, and a California farmer spent 25,000 dollars an acre to plant a crop, and then plowed it under because of no labor available labor help (photo from mommasgottabake.com)

Strawberry farming is an expensive proposition, and a California farmer spent 25,000 dollars an acre to plant a crop, and then plowed it under because of no labor available labor help (photo from mommasgottabake.com)

California that plowed up 20 percent of his acreage. Keep in mind, it can cost up to 25,000 dollars an acre to grow strawberries.”

Thiel said he knows the sickening feeling that the farmer from California experienced.

“I’ve had to plow up squash for the last three years because I can’t find help,” said Bernie. “Of my normal plantings, I’ve had to plow up quite a bit because I couldn’t get it picked. This was marketable product that I already had a home for, but couldn’t get it harvested.”

Produce farmers aren’t the only ones feeling the pinch of a labor shortage. It’s hitting the dairy industry hard too.

John Rosenow is a dairy farmer from Cochran, Wisconsin, and he said the downturn for labor has gone on for several years.

“About 10 to 15 years ago, the local labor force dried up,” said Rosenow. As a result, the Wisconsin dairy industry became stagnant. People were afraid to grow their operation because they couldn’t find any help.”

John Rosenow is a dairy farmer in Wisconsin who’s having a hard time finding enough labor to help on the farm.  He’d like the nation’s immigration policy changed in order to assure a reliable supply of help for years to come (Photo from wisconsinwatch.com)

John Rosenow is a dairy farmer in Wisconsin who’s having a hard time finding enough labor to help on the farm. He’d like the nation’s immigration policy changed in order to assure a reliable supply of help for years to come (Photo from wisconsinwatch.com)

He said, “At that point, we discovered that Mexican immigrant labor was fantastic. They do an incredible job, work really hard, and they’re reliable. At that point, many operations began to hire Mexican labor, and the industry began to grow again.”

“Things improved, people started expanding, and the dairy industry improved in Wisconsin,” said Rosenow.

As the nation’s immigration debate continues, the labor force is once again shrinking in Wisconsin, and dairy farmers are feeling the pinch.

“Generally, everyone is short one or two people,” said Rosenow. “It’s because the inflow of Mexican labor from the south has dried up quite a bit.”

John said, “A large part of the downturn stems from border security. It’s a lot harder for people to cross the southern border. The fact that it’s gotten so much harder gives people less hope that they can come be part of this economy and industry.”

The need for reliable farm labor is growing again. “As far as people to milk the cows day in and day out, feed the calves, clean the barns, and other chores like that, I have not found anyone worth hiring, other than immigrant laborers, over the last 10 to 15 years.”

“If society wants to have an abundant supply of safe, wholesome food, produced here in the United States, which helps keep America secure, we have to have labor to do it,” said Rosenow. “That labor is going to have to come as immigrants.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Consumers will feel the pinch of the immigration debate

“The debate over the nation’s immigration policy is one of the more political and complex debates there are right now,” said Kristi Boswell, Director of Congressional Relations at the American Farm Bureau.

While the debate rages on, agriculture is paying close attention to the process of establishing a new policy. If the nation’s farmers can’t find a reliable supply of workers to harvest crops, it would put America’s food supply and overall security at serious risk.

Americans who don’t live on a farm or have any close connection with agriculture may not know that agriculture relies on a steady supply of immigrant workers.

Kristi Boswell

Kristi Boswell is the Director of Congressional Relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation in Washington D.C. (Photo from the Farm Bureau website)

“Currently, 70 percent of our immigrant work force is not authorized to work in the United States,” said Boswell. “We also have a flawed guest worker program (H2A) that is expensive and burdensome, and it only supplies 4 percent of our workforce because of that cost and complexity.”

“Our farmers crave stability, and this is only going to come through responsible legislative immigration reform that provides solutions,” said Boswell.

Chandler Goule

Chandler Goule is the Senior Director of Programs with the National Farmers Union in Washington D.C. (Photo from www.biofuellawconference.org)

“I would say agriculture is the silent partner that gets hurt the most in this debate,” said Chandler Goule, the Senior Vice President of Programs at the National Farmers Union. “For those who say we should send all immigrants home, I’d like to see what their grocery bills look like in a few months. Immigrant labor gets the crops out of the fields and into the grocery stores.”

“I would love to say Americans would come and do this work,” said Boswell. “I think it’s safe to say that most people don’t want their children to become a crop worker. The wages are very competitive, peaking around 20 dollar an hour during harvest, but it’s very hard work and seasonal in nature.”

The H2A program presents challenges to farmers because of the way it’s structured.

“A producer tells the government how many employees he needs, then those folks come in and you pay them a set wage for a certain amount of time,” said Jordan Dux, the National Affairs Director for the Nebraska Farm Bureau. “It’s too stringent in the way it’s regulated, because if you’re employees finish work early, then you as the farmer still have to pay them for that contracted period.”

Jordan Dux

Jordan Dux is the Director of National Affairs with the Nebraska Farm Bureau (Photo from www.nefb.org)

“There’s not a lot of flexibility there for farmers because of the way it’s regulated,” said Dux. “They’re trying to make it a one-size-fits-all program for all of agriculture, and it doesn’t work that way.”

Agriculture is a hard business to lump under one umbrella. “Agriculture is a unique business in the way that different products are produced,” said Dux. “If you can build in flexibility within any program, that’s going to be beneficial for anything, including tax policy, farm programs, and anything else, it always works better.”

The need for flexibility stems from the fact that immigrant labor touches many different types of agriculture. “The issue definitely touches hand-labor intensive ag the most,” said Kristi Boswell. “It really does hit all of agriculture, including specialty crops, strawberries, citrus. You have apples, lettuce, and really, the entire produce industry relies on immigrant labor.”

“On the livestock side, dairy is very labor intensive,” said Boswell. “You have feedlots and pork facilities that require a lot of labor. Custom harvesters also use a lot of H2A labor as well.”

A lack of immigrant labor is causing some serious problems in agriculture fields across the country.

“We have a Farm Bureau member in Texas that literally had to shred 10 acres of squash because he didn’t have the labor force to get it out of the fields,” said Boswell. “That’s heart wrenching.”

Chandler Goule said, “It’s true. We have a segment of society sitting on government programs in agricultural areas that are more than capable of going out there and working in the fields. They won’t do physical labor.”

“The immigrants from the south will come and do all of the labor,” said Goule. “It’s a conundrum. That’s why I think it’s important for agriculture to remain in the debate.

“Everybody is so worried about the amnesty part of the debate,” said Chandler. “If they don’t do this right, agriculture will be hit first, it will be hit the hardest, and then you’ll see the true impacts of it because it will hit the consumer.”

“You’re used to going to the store and finding everything you need,” said Goule. “When we can’t get it out of the field and it’s rotting, you’re either going to see more imported food, which could come from a country that doesn’t have the same safety standards for food and vegetables, or you won’t find the product, period.”

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