Labor Crisis Should Galvanize Agriculture

Farmers need visa reform and guest worker program now

This country was built on the backs of immigrants. A young man left his home, packed up his family, journeyed a great distance to set up in a foreign land and struggle to learn a new language - all with the hope of working hard to prosper and obtain the American dream.

Those were the tired, poor wretches - our forefathers. They were the folks who sacrificed to scratch out a living in search of the great American Dream.

That was 100 years ago. Today those dreamers are still arriving, but the welcome sign has been taken down, and the U.S. economy suffers as a result. While the debate over migration reform festers on Capitol Hill, real American businesses are at risk. Farms across this country have gone belly up because millions of dollars of food were left rotting in fields. The owners could not get labor because they lived in fear they were hiring illegals.

Today's farm labor crisis will translate to higher prices at the grocery store, but not before more farms fail for lack of reliable labor.

"There are farmers I know who have gone out of business because they could not get the labor they need to make their business work," says Howard Buffett, an Illinois farmer and champion for immigration reform. "When you have everything taken away from you, it becomes an emotional issue."

Arizona, Georgia and Alabama recently passed stringent immigration reforms.  In effect, those laws make it a crime for unauthorized workers to be in the states. The laws, along with e-verify mandates for employers, have caused many workers to flee elsewhere.

In Washington, Gov. Christine Gregoire declared a labor supply crisis last fall when a lack of up to 5,000 apple pickers put 15 billion ready-to-harvest apples at risk. Total loss: $40 million. Just last month labor shortages forced Washington farmers to leave 10% of this year’s asparagus crop uncut, costing them about $200,000 a day. Generous state laws provide unemployment benefits of over 42% of average wages. Why break your back picking veggies when you can sit at home and collect a check? In Arizona the laws allow police to stop you even if they just think you may be there illegally. 

Meanwhile we have a labor department in this country that somehow concludes that 9% unemployment means a) those seasonal farm labor jobs will be handled by Americans, or b) farmers must not need any labor.

In a country racked by chronic long-term unemployment, some loud voices claim migrant farm workers take jobs away from Americans. Alabama's immigration law was intended to provide opportunities for recession-racked Americans. It's not happening. Get up early and work 10 hours picking lettuce or tomatoes, bale hay or gut catfish? Six days a week? Most Americans would rather collect unemployment.

Finding good farm labor is one hurdle. Allowing them to jump through appropriate but not burdensome hoops is another.

The cumbersome H-2A visa process farmers must use to legally hire foreign labor does not work. Growers continue to complain that the H-2A program is cumbersome and expensive. In a survey by the National Council of Agricultural Employers, 42% of employers who applied to the Department of Labor for certification to hire H-2A workers in 2011say they would not re-apply this year because of "administrative burdens" and costs.

What can we do? Tomorrow I'll share a few thoughts on how to solve this problem, even in an election year.

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