The USDA’s Agricultural Outlook Forum recently highlighted various topics surrounding the future of the industry.
Two agricultural leaders discussed one issue that has been at the industry’s forefront in the Southeast – immigration reform.
National Council of Farmer Cooperatives President and CEO Chuck Conner said immigration reform has long been a hot issue discussed in Washington D.C. but has failed to yield any change over the last decade; despite a shortage of farm workers and increasing wages within the H-2A program.
“This problem is still out there. In fact, it’s getting worse. We’ve got a lot of undocumented workers on our farms and ranches. They need some kind of legal status. We talk about the amazing accomplishments of American agriculture throughout COVID,” Conner said. “We couldn’t do what we do every day without the existence of these workers, pure and simple, so we need to keep them on our farms and ranches. We need to pull them out of the shadows and give them the legal authority to work on those places.”
American Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall echoed Conner’s sentiments.
“It’s the biggest limiting factor that agriculture has. We’ve got young people coming out of college that want to have jobs in agriculture. We’ve got farmers that are ready to bring their children back home. They’ve got the land and resources and the water. But they don’t have the labor to expand to be able to afford to bring their children back home with them,” Duvall said. “We’ve got to solve this program. I hope that Congress will take it head on and find some solutions to it.”
The H-2A program allows farmers who meet specific regulatory requirements to bring foreign nationals to the United States to fill temporary agricultural jobs. But H-2A wages for 2021 just increased and are threatening to skyrocket if the Biden Administration gets its $15 minimum wage. As costs increase and Mexico continues to dump produce and drive market prices down, farmers are struggling to stay afloat.
“We have a vibrant guest worker program in this country where we temporarily bring people into the country to do agricultural work. This is a very difficult and cumbersome program for our farmers, and in particular, for our smaller farmers who are trying to make ends meet,” Conner added. “The bureaucracy and the cost of our H-2A guest worker program is just making it almost prohibitive for them to survive. We need reform for that guest worker program.”
Duvall added, “It’s got to be affordable. Our employees deserve to be paid a good salary. But our farmers have got to be able to afford it because we’re price takers, not price makers. They’ve got to be able to afford it so we can continue to provide those jobs and continue to grow food on our farms.”