Saturday, June 15, 2024

OPINION: U.S. agriculture needs farm workforce modernization

American farmers feel like the little red hen working alone to grow the wheat, mill the flour, and make the bread, as they struggle to meet labor demands across sectors. Few domestic workers find agricultural employment attractive and our nation’s visa program to hire foreign workers for agricultural work simply does not work for employers or employees. From spring pruning to fall harvest farm labor demands go unmet across every crop and region, as workers both unwilling and willing, sit idly by wondering who will grow the bread.


Farmers and ranchers in the United States have grown reliant on the H-2A visa program to hire temporary foreign workers due to the absence of American workers willing to take farm jobs. H-2A visas grant a pathway for farmers to address labor shortages and the reliance on the program is only growing. H-2A visa participation grew by 226% from 2010 to 2019. Despite an increase from 79,000 workers in 2010 to 258,000 in 2019, farms are still short on workers and some farms needing year-round employees, like dairies, are barred from the program.


As for the farms feeling like the little red hen, those operations have had to wait for decades as legislation designed to make H-2A workable for agriculture go unapproved by the U.S. Senate. Instead, the most recent government effort to ‘fix’ the ag labor market came from the Biden-Harris administration in the fall of 2023, in an obscure grant program that promises financial relief if farm operations are willing to adopt costly employment practices.


The Farm Labor Stabilization and Protection Pilot Program throws $65 million of taxpayer money at an issue that in the real world requires actual labor to solve the problem, not dollar signs. Throwing hard-earned taxpayer money at a government-created issue isn’t solving the problem but only masking the consequences.


In the story of the little red hen, money by itself cannot grow the wheat, to make the flour, to make the bread. It took the physical hard work of the hen. That is the solution American food security needs today. We need legislation that allows the physical hard work of agriculture to continue unhindered by complex and redundant bureaucracy.


That is exactly what the Farm Workforce Modernization Act (FWMA) allows. The FWMA favors work solutions over monetary bandages, aligns closely with recent recommendations of a Congressional working group on ag labor, and is supported by over 250 agricultural groups and organizations. 


But redundancy on this issue is becoming the norm. Not only has the U.S. House of Representatives successfully passed the FWMA multiple times, these 250 groups and members have spoken about ag labor reform for years, and nothing has changed. For decades farms have sought improvements to the H-2A program without success, and out of necessity have adopted expensive new technology, increased human resource costs to navigate the H-2A system, outsourced hiring to farm labor contractors, or gone out of business. Additionally, the skyrocketing wage rate used in the H-2A program that the FWMA seeks to freeze and reform is becoming unsustainable for farmers across the country.


Reforming the H-2A visa program for temporary workers is critical for protecting the future of American agriculture. If enacted, the reforms outlined in FWMA would improve efficiencies in filing, reform wages and control volatile fluctuations, reduce housing costs, meet year-round labor needs, and mandate E-Verify for the agricultural sector.


It's time that the little red hen had a little support, especially when neighbors are more than willing to help, if only the farmer would open the gate. Adopting policy reforms, like the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, would begin much-needed and long-awaited reform for agricultural labor, bringing stability to farmers, improving food security, and providing good jobs to those willing to put in the actual work to produce and harvest America’s crops.

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Congressman Mike Simpson is currently serving his 13th term in the House of Representatives for Idaho’s Second Congressional District. Mike serves as Chairman of the House Interior and Environment Subcommittee on Appropriations. Madi Clark is a Senior Policy Analyst for the Mountain States Policy Center, an independent free-market research organization based in Idaho.