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Three Ways Immigration Reform Could Help U.S. Farmers

U.S. farmers have been burdened by ongoing labor shortages for years.

The U.S. agriculture industry has dealt with a widespread farmworker shortage as a result of many factors, including immigration laws and a declining interest in agricultural employment. As a result, the gap between available jobs in agriculture and people to fill these jobs is widening.

In response, farmers are discovering innovative ways to adapt by voicing their opinions on immigration reform and implementing agricultural technology to elevate their production capacity.

Follow along to learn more about the shortage of farmworkers in the U.S., immigration legislation, and how farmers can respond.

Facts About U.S. Farmworkers

Outside of the primary operator, the U.S. agricultural workforce is generally comprised of two groups: family members and hired workers. According to the 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture, there are 2.4 million hired farmworkers in the U.S. Hired farmworkers comprise less than one percent of all U.S. wage and salary workers. While other U.S. industries also grapple with staffing difficulties, the labor-intensive nature of the agriculture industry means that finding farmworkers can be a challenge. The effect this has on American farmers and ranchers is immense.

The Impact of Labor Shortages on U.S. Farmers

For many farmers, lack of access to quality farmhands is one of their primary challenges. Without the labor to harvest crops, their production potential is limited, and food waste is often created. One example of this is when row crop farmers were forced to plow over their crops back in 2020, due to supply chain disruptions and severe labor shortages triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Why Is it Difficult to Find Farmworkers?

For every graduate seeking a job, there are two jobs available in agriculture. The unique nature of the agriculture industry poses numerous challenges that contribute to labor shortages.

Reasons for a declining agricultural workforce include:

  • Less interest in agriculture among younger generations; 
  • Wage requirements; 
  • Increase in education and job opportunities; and 
  • Immigration policies that limit the available workforce pool. 

Like many challenges in agriculture, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to the farm labor shortage. Solving this issue will require changes in multiple areas, including immigration reform and agricultural technology.

“We have plenty of land, water, and sunshine — all critical ingredients for growing crops. But what we do not have plenty of is labor.”Bill Brim, Georgia Farmer

What is the H-2A Visa Program?

The H-2A visa program (officially known as the H-2A Temporary Agriculture Program) provides temporary work authorization for foreign workers to enter the U.S. and work on agricultural operations for a period of up to 10 months. While the H-2A program does provide needed labor for farmers, one of its central limitations is that it only supports seasonal and temporary agricultural jobs and does not allow workers to remain for a full year. This challenges many producers such as livestock and dairy operators, who need labor year-round.

The H-2A program requires employers to pay a minimum wage, provide housing, and pay for transportation. From 2015 to 2020, the number of H-2A applications filed by employers increased by 87 percent, demonstrating the high need for labor.

While the program has both pros and cons, 47 percent of farmers are “not at all satisfied” or “slightly satisfied” with the H-2A program. In its current form, the H-2A program isn’t meeting the full labor needs of farmers and is both time-consuming and costly for producers. As a result, enhancements to this program are needed. According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, 72 percent of growers said their workers came 22 days after they needed them, on average. In addition, less than four percent of the hired workers needed in agriculture are provided by the H-2A program.

Due to its limitations, the majority of the farm community agrees that the current H-2A program and immigration policies must be reformed to provide more effective farm labor relief.

Immigration Reform and Farm Labor

Approximately 75 percent of agricultural workers are immigrants with around half of hired crop farmworkers lacking legal immigration status, making immigration reform a crucial player in solving the farm labor shortage.

“Farmers need meaningful reform that addresses the concerns of both workers and growers.”Zippy Duvall, American Farm Bureau Federation President

Lawmakers and members of the agricultural community are pushing for immigration reform that addresses these needs and provides greater access to farmworkers.

Workforce Modernization Act of 2021

The Workforce Modernization Act was introduced in March 2021 and proposes the following changes to the current H-2A program:

One of the key improvements is that it would lengthen the time workers could stay in the U.S. to work.

“Stabilizing the workforce will protect the future of our farms and our food supply. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act accomplishes this by providing a path to legal status for farmworkers and updating and streamlining the H-2A temporary worker visa program while ensuring fair wages and working conditions for all workers.”Representative Zoe Lofgren of California

While supported by numerous ag groups, the American Farm Bureau Federation announced its opposition by expressing, “Although some provisions in this bill align with our policy goals, flaws and shortcomings in the bill are too great for us to support it.”

It was passed in the House on March 18, 2021, with bipartisan support, but it hasn’t been passed in the Senate yet at the time this article was published. Time will tell whether this legislation is realized or whether another proposal will take its place.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act addresses the nation’s future labor needs by modernizing an outdated system for temporary workers, while ensuring fair wages and safer workplace conditions.”Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture

Three Ways to Enhance Farm Labor Through Immigration Reform

Regardless of the current legislation up for debate, there are three central concerns that farmers voice over the current H-2A program.

1. The visas do not allow workers to stay long enough.

Currently, even most livestock and dairy operations that require year-round help cannot use H-2A workers year-round. As a result, finding sufficient labor to get the job done can be a challenge. Extending the length of time of the H-2A visas would benefit these producers immensely by providing them greater access to labor and eliminating an additional search.

2. The process of hiring H-2A workers is difficult.

The current H-2A process can be lengthy and confusing. Farm operators must submit a request 60 to 75 days ahead of when they need the workers. Even after approval, it can take over 30 days for the visa to be approved. In addition, many employers need to hire lawyers to assist in the visa process. As a potential component of the solution, the Workforce Modernization Act would streamline the visa filing process with a new electronic platform.

For farmers, time is of the essence—and developing an expedited visa approval process would help preserve it.

3. Hiring H-2A workers can be costly.

Because farmers are required to provide housing and transportation, hiring H-2A workers can be very costly. For instance, a farmer in Pennsylvania spends an estimated $5,500 on transportation and lawyer fees before the workers arrive. In addition to wages, it will often cost a farmer more than $10K for housing, transportation, etc. for each worker.

Reducing the fees involved would help reduce the financial burden from farmers so they can focus on providing food for our nation.

We’re Here to Support You

While the future of immigration reform is outside of your control, you do have the ability to advocate, innovate, and adapt your operation to meet your production needs.

AgAmerica understands the impact investing in ag tech can have on your operation. Our flexible ten year line of credit empowers you to take the first step by providing the financial backing to purchase these technologies.

Learn more about AgAmerica’s flexible financing to boost your working capital.

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