From AgJournalOnline.com, Candace Krebs, 7 Feb 2012.
Greeley, Colo. —Tougher anti-immigration laws have slashed the available pool of farm labor, leading to worker shortages nationwide, millions of dollars in lost crops and increased urgency to reform the temporary worker visa program to make it more effective for agricultural employers, according to one official who represents farmers in labor intensive industries.
“Three-fourths of the workers are gone,” said Frank Gasperini, executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, a membership organization of produce growers, dairies and others. “Agriculture needs some kind of accommodation for those farmers who can’t just buy a bigger machine.”
Gasperini traveled from Washington, D.C., to Colorado recently to participate in one of two panels on the topic of agricultural labor held during the Colorado Farm Show.
States like Georgia and Alabama provide a foreshadowing of what might happen if the U.S. adopts a proposal to mandate the use of EVerify, a federal work authorization and background check program, Gasperini said. In those states, fully one-third of labor-intensive crops were left to rot in the fields. “Families fled when the law passed,” he said.
The ripples were felt nationwide. Immigrant workers are staying closer to home, skipping the seasonal harvest migration and getting by on less, said Gasperini and other ag labor experts who appeared on the panel. That equates to farm labor shortages of 8 to 12 percent nationwide.
H2A reforms needed
The only legal alternative for hiring foreign workers is the H2A temporary worker visa program, but it can take months for approvals, and many employers protest its expense and bureaucratic inflexibility.
Gasperini’s organization commissioned a survey that showed only 14 percent of users are happy with the H2A program in its current form.
Though farms of all sizes rely on it — about half hire less than 10 employees — the upfront costs are substantial.
Joe Petrocco, a produce farmer from Brighton who participated on the panel, estimated the minimum cost at around $3,000 regardless of the number of employees needed.
Despite that, the expense is a secondary concern when there is no other way to get qualified workers. Petrocco said H2A workers were often happier, more productive and more dependable, making it “a wash” compared to hiring locally.
His farm gets hundreds of applications from domestic workers, he explained, but only about 10 percent are credible candidates and, if hired, they seldom last through the season.
“After two weeks they are so sore they can’t bend over. It’s a different type of work. You almost have to be born into it,” he said.
That the work is seasonal and requires working seven days a week during harvest also make the jobs unattractive to most Americans.
Last year, Petrocco Farms left 10 percent of the vegetable crop unharvested, the equivalent of roughly $150,000 worth, and plans to plant fewer acres in 2012.
Employers have to document the need for foreign workers in order to have access to the program. “H2A is designed to be a last resort,” said Olga Ruiz, the state monitor advocate for the Department of Labor.
In general, labor officials have been pressuring farms to hire more unskilled American workers to fight high unemployment, increasingly denying worker application requests for farm experience or productivity standards.
But many jobs on farms, from transplanting onions to working around livestock, do require background skills. “There is a talent to this. You can’t just take people off of the street,” Petrocco said.
That’s why the H2A program alone isn’t sufficient to make up for all of the labor farms would lose if the crackdown on foreign-born workers continues and expands, Gasperini said.
Set up as 10-month visas, the program also can’t provide the year-round workers increasingly needed on dairies, hog farms, feedlots and other enterprises. And when farms do use the program, the likelihood of being targeted for an audit by immigration officials actually goes up, creating a disincentive to sign up, Gasperini said.
Global labor market
The situation in the United States is not unique; other developed countries rely on labor from poorer countries. In Northern Italy, for example, thousands of migrant workers from India are legally employed in the dairying and cheese-making industries.
“People cross borders to work. It’s been going on here for a long, long while, at least since the 1940s when we had the old Braceros program. In the 1950s, we had half-a-million foreign workers working here,” says one Colorado dairyman who attended the farm show panel and wanted to speak about the issue but was afraid to have his name used.
The topic is a sensitive one for employers as well as workers. At one time, the Colorado Farm Show offered a Spanish language-training seminar that had to be cancelled after agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement started targeting it.
Nowadays, fines for faulty paperwork can run thousands of dollars per employee and have reached as high as $100,000 on some dairies, the dairyman adds. The sudden loss of labor is also potentially devastating.
“It seems unfair and a real waste of resources for our country that they are going after the people who are feeding us and supporting our economy,” he said.
Gasperini believes global trends will only intensify the ag worker shortage. Within the next 10 years, he predicts there will be far fewer Mexican-born laborers available, and the United States will be competing for labor with countries like China.
Unlike the United States, which has been willing to import its food, the Chinese are buying arable land in developing countries with plans to import the labor they need to grow food for their huge population.
“They realize they can’t afford to outsource their food production; they want to own control of it,” he said. “And for them, there’s no red tape. It will be hard for American farmers to compete with that.”
No quick solutions likely
Reforms Gasperini and others are seeking include extending the duration of work visas or adding some new exemptions for agriculture and creating some type of legal status for undocumented farm workers already in the United States.
Many Western states including Colorado have also found a useful model in the Utah Compact, a declaration of principles on immigration that opposes racial profiling and supports what is described as a “business-friendly,” humanitarian approach.
Gasperini applauds Colorado for being one of the first states to try creating its own pilot program to address the issue; however, states attempting their own reforms are finding their hands are largely tied by the federal government’s strong preemption on immigration laws.
Gasperini and other members of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform believe any kind of comprehensive solution is off of the table in 2012, an election year. But he does see a small window of opportunity opening after that.
“We hope when things cool down after the election, no matter which party is in power, people will be able to have an adult discussion about this issue,” he concluded “I think we’re getting the point across to Congress that this is a national and a food security issue, and that they need to treat us uniquely if they want to have a secure, domestic food supply.”