Last ditch effort to reform agriculture labor in works

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man in milking parlor
A Latino farm worker runs a milking parlor at a dairy farm in Sugarcreek, Ohio. (Farm and Dairy file photo)

UPDATE 12/27: The farmworker reform measures were not included in the omnibus spending package that was passed on Dec. 22. Immigration reform groups decried the lack of action by Congress and, in particular, the American Farm Bureau.

United Farm Workers president Teresa Romero: “It is however unsurprising that some of the most powerful grower institutions would ultimately choose to let their own workforce remain undocumented. Deep down, the leadership of the American Farm Bureau and the Senate GOP prefer to keep farm workers living in fear and uncertainty, because they know that an undocumented workforce is easier to intimidate and exploit. The American Farm Bureau would rather harm the economic interests of many growers they represent than extend any legal rights and protections to the workers whose work truly feeds America.

ABIC Action executive director Rebecca Shi: “You don’t win when one player quits before the work is done. The American Farm Bureau — almost alone among agricultural employers — never worked to move solutions forward. This may explain why Republican Senators who represent farm states were sadly absent in advancing the bipartisan House legislation. Farm workers, farmers, and anyone in America who eats will suffer as a result.”

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Time is running out to get legislation passed that many farm groups say would ease the industry’s labor issues.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., introduced language for the Affordable and Secure Food Act Dec. 15, during a press conference where he was joined by farmers and farmworkers. The bill would reform the H-2A visa program to provide year-round jobs and set up a pathway to a green card for migrant farm workers.

Bennet called this bill the “last best chance to save family farms” as they deal with labor shortages that are pushing some of them out of business.

The bill needs to be passed before a new divided Congress is seated or efforts to reform agricultural labor will start from zero next year. Farmers don’t have until the next Congress, said James O’Neill, director of outreach for the American Business Immigration Coalition, a bipartisan group that promotes immigration reform.

“Farmers are facing a devastating labor shortage,” he told Farm and Dairy, in an interview. “It raises prices for consumers when farmers have to cut back on how much they can produce or producing something at less than their capacity.”

Dairy farm impact

This legislation builds on a bill — the Farm Workforce Modernization Act — that passed the House earlier this year. The Ohio Dairy Producers Association, National Milk Producers Federation, National Farmers Union, United Farm Workers union and others support Bennet’s bill. 

The Affordable and Secure Food Act would establish a program for farm workers, along with their spouses and children, to earn legal status after working in the U.S. for 10 years. It would also allow up to 26,000 year-round H-2A workers to come to the country.

The bill would be a game changer for dairy farmers especially, who have not been able to access workers through the current H-2A program.

“Dairy farmers and farmworkers urgently need action to improve our ag labor system,” said Jim Mulhern, president of the National Milk Producers Federation, in a statement. “This measure provides significant improvements to current law and is an important step forward.”

Kathy Davis, a dairy farmer in Ashland County, said they needed to hire more workers in the mid-1990s when they started milking three times a day. They had difficulty keeping local folks in the jobs, but through word-of-mouth they found some Latino workers looking for jobs. 

Now, they have 25 full and part-time employees on their farm, where they milk about 600 cows. Nine of those employees are Latino. 

“These guys, they’re coming here to work,” she said. “They have goals. They want to maximize their time here.”

In the past, they’ve been able to hire local high school students to fill gaps, but that’s gotten more difficult over the years as children are involved in more extracurricular activities. They have some younger workers in their 20s, but a bulk of their employees are in their 50s or older. 

To be able to use the H-2A program would give them options to fill jobs as they need to replace people that retire or leave.

“So for us, this is a really good first step,” Davis said, of the labor reform efforts. “It’s not the last step. It’s a very good first step to address this problem, to do something hopefully that’s long lasting and durable.”

Pathway forward

Versions of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act were passed in the House during the last two consecutive Congresses, O’Neill said. The American Business Immigration Coalition has been hosting media events in key states, including Ohio and Pennsylvania, throughout the last year to build interest and awareness in the House bill. 

The Affordable and Secure Food Act could get tacked onto the omnibus spending bill that would fund the government through the next fiscal year. The Senate passed a one-week extension to avert a partial government shutdown that was scheduled to begin Dec. 16. 

The American Farm Bureau Federation does not support this version of the bill, although Sam Kieffer, vice president of public policy for AFBF, told Farm and Dairy that it’s an improvement on the House version. There are concerns about wage rates laid out in the bill, which Kieffer says would be unaffordable for many farmers. 

The AFBF sent a letter to Senate leadership earlier this month urging members to take action on agriculture labor.

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be reached at rachel@farmanddairy.com or 724-201-1544.)

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Rachel is Farm and Dairy's editor and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County, where she co-manages the family farm raising beef cattle and sheep with her husband and in-laws. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts. She can be reached at rachel@farmanddairy.com or 724-201-1544.

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