Minding Ag's Business
Marcia Zarley Taylor DTN Executive Editor

Tuesday 01/29/13

Cubs Fans and Immigration Reformers

Labor-intensive ag industries--livestock, custom harvesting crews, seed corn production and fresh produce to name a few--are like the eternally faithful Chicago Cubs fans who wonder each winter "will this be the year?" says Frank Gasperini, CEO of the National Council of Agricultural Employers. He is not dreaming about a World Series run, he adds, but whether Congress will do something useful about immigration reform.

"Most of us vacillate between extreme optimism and abject depression over the possibility that agriculture’s workforce needs will ever be positively addressed in ways that will work," he wrote a few weeks before a bipartisan group of U.S. senators and President Barack Obama unveiled immigration overhauls earlier this week. Now a coalition of agriculture organizations including Farm Bureau, Western Growers, the National Council of Agricultural Employers and others think the country has the best chance yet to bring ag's workforce out of the shadows and end the lapses that have left so many acres unharvested in recent years. (See DTN Farm Policy Editor Chris Clayton's blog yesterday.)

Farmers I've visited with this month are distraught over breakdowns in the H-2A visa program that law abiding employers try to use to bring temporary seasonal workers to the U.S. and return to their country. Because employers must pay above-minimum wage rates, supply housing and roundtrip airfare, such H-2A employees are not cheap, but demand far exceeds supply. The skills of South African farm kids are critical to custom harvesters, for example, since they are familiar with heavy equipment, can work well outside the limits of U.S. summer vacations and possess a work ethic that gets crops harvested on time. An East Coast broccoli producer relies on over 200 Mexican H-2A workers per year, she says, because every U.S. citizen she has ever hired in the last decade quit within two weeks. When it's 100 degrees, it's hard to find someone who doesn't prefer air conditioning.

But H-2As supply less than 5% of the ag workers needed. A national survey conducted by the National Council of Agricultural Employers of H-2A employers under the current rules showed that administrative delays result in workers arriving on average 22 days after the date of need causing an economic loss of nearly $320 million for farms that hire H-2A workers. H-2As also don't work for year-round jobs like dairy and cattle, since the law requires those guest workers to return to their home country after a specified period.

Last summer in New Jersey, some produce growers had to assess what crops were selling best and leave others to rot in the fields because not enough workers showed up for contract harvest crews, growers tell me. Knowing that First Lady Michelle Obama wants healthy and affordable foods to combat obesity, this chronic labor shortage seems like a self-defeating scenario.

A 2012 survey by the California Farm Bureau found that 71% of tree fruit growers, and nearly 80% of raisin and berry growers, were unable to find an adequate number of employees to prune trees or vines or pick the crop. More than 80,000 acres of fresh produce that used to be grown in California have been moved to other countries.

Oddly, government audits of H-2A employers are becoming ever more arduous. Employers must advertise for local workers before hiring H-2As, to make sure domestic workers have a chance for the job. But a Delta cotton and grain operation was criticized in audit because its ad required applicants have a driver's license and three months experience. "We were told to say a license wasn't required, but it would have to be acquired after hiring, and to reduce experience to one month," says the employer. "That seems like they're trying to dictate our business, but what would happen if we didn't get licensed?"

It's high time to enact a practical and workable immigration program and put U.S. agriculture on the path to full production. To see what scores of farm organizations want, go to http://www.agworkforcecoalition.org/…

Follow me on Twitter@MarciaZTaylor.

(SK/CZ)

Posted at 4:54PM CST 01/29/13 by Marcia Zarley Taylor
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