Agricultural Labor: Tough to Tougher By Craig Regelbrugge

A good friend of mine often says, “It’s ok to look back … just don’t stare.” Yet just the other day, it was hard not to. The New York Times published a story revealing many “behinds the scenes” details of the 2013 – 2014 failed House Republican effort to take the immigration reform issue off the table once and for all.

Sadly, “close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades,” although we almost got the ag piece of the issue solved in 2000, 2001 (before Sept. 11) and 2004. Carefully negotiated ag provisions passed the Senate in 2006, were folded into a comprehensive bill in 2007, and passed the Senate again in 2013 before the House failure mentioned above.

Why is all of this important? Because after more than 15 years of congressional failed efforts to modernize the agricultural visa system and provide better legal immigration options, the challenge farmers face just gets tougher to fix. The hired farm workforce (roughly 80 percent foreign born and more than 50 percent “unauthorized”) has grown older, more settled and more rooted in society. There are thousands of U.S.-born children of farm workers growing up here. Few new workers are coming in, and there is constant attrition as workers age out or are drawn into other industries.

As the labor situation deteriorates, use of the only available legal visa program is skyrocketing. Labor Department officials expected to certify nearly 150,000 H-2A positions by Sept. 30, double the number approved in 2011. Many growers are scrambling to figure out worker housing options, a primary barrier to using H-2A. And as use of the program grows, so do threats of processing delays and even catastrophic failures of the Labor Department’s creaky computer system.

Certainly, the worsening labor situation isn’t an existential threat to American agriculture; much of what we produce in this country is highly mechanized. But, the production that is at risk happens to be the high-value areas that often can’t be machine

harvested. Specialty crops return vastly more dollars per acre than mechanized commodity crops. In addition, these returns stimulate local and regional economies and off-farm jobs to a much greater degree than row crops.

To illustrate, a New York grower reported that when her 11th generation family farm struggling with labor shortages switched 1,000 acres of fresh market vegetables to corn for silage, the labor need went from 40 long-season jobs to just two workers for two weeks in the spring and fall to operate a planter and combine. Payroll declined from about $2.5 million to just $70,000. These become dollars no longer generated and no longer to be spent locally on goods and services, rent and taxes. And, the farm itself no longer spends what it would on inputs, including irrigation technology.

The needed solution is not difficult to envision. Growers and producers need a process for experienced farm workers to be able to earn legal status with work authorization and incentives to remain working on farms. And, the industry needs a 21st


agricultural visa program with more flexible timing, less stifling bureaucracy, better housing options and fair protections for workers and employers. There were many good features in the agricultural provisions of 2013’s S.744, as well as some details that could be improved upon. It’s critical that Congress and the next administration find the will to act.

All eyes are on the race for the White House and how the next president may proceed. Candidate Clinton has expressed a strong desire to tackle immigration reform early. Her record shows hopeful patches of pragmatic support for the kinds of reforms we need. The concern, of course, is whether she’ll be pulled left by the “Elizabeth Warren wing” of the party. With Candidate Trump, there are many more unknowns. The tough populist talk on the campaign trail is concerning, as is his deference on immigration policy to enforcement-only hardliners that have stonewalled even modest reforms to existing agricultural and seasonal visa programs. One must hope that if he is elected advisors with cooler heads and enlightened views will prevail.

Whatever the November election outcome, time is of the essence for labor-intensive agriculture in America.

Craig Regelbrugge serves as AmericanHort’s senior vice president, where he is responsible for industry advocacy and research programs. He is a frequent

spokesperson on topics relating to the workforce and immigration, production, trade and environmental issues impacting farmers and small businesses.

32 Irrigation TODAY | October 2016

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