“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 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 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 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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