Zippy Duvall: America has a farm labor shortage, needs better guest worker rules

Zippy Duvall: America has a farm labor shortage, needs better guest worker rules

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Ginseng

Wisconsin needs more seasonal and farm workers, such as these men harvesting ginseng near Wausau.

Americans expect a lot from farmers and ranchers: fresh, unblemished fruits and vegetables, locally grown and responsibly harvested.

Wisconsin ranks No. 1 in the nation for production of milk and dairy products, cranberries, snap beans for processing and ginseng. Wisconsin farm receipts exceeded $12 billion in 2017. Add in the value of food processing, and agriculture is a major economic driver in Wisconsin, contributing more than $88 billion to the state’s economy.

This prodigious output isn’t automatic and doesn’t happen by chance. American agriculture relies on hundreds of thousands of skilled workers to plant the fields, tend the crops, harvest the produce and pack it for markets both here and abroad.

We don’t have enough of these workers.

This is true not just for dairy farmers in Wisconsin, but also for cherry producers in Michigan, tobacco growers in North Carolina, sweet potato farmers in Louisiana, citrus growers in Florida, and livestock farmers in Texas.

Farming’s labor system is broken. We need to fix it.

Let’s start with a few truths. The first is that less than 2 percent of Americans grow up on farms. But shifting demographics are only part of the challenge.

Farm work is episodic and often seasonal, and fruits and vegetables have a short window to be harvested, packed and shipped to market. Dairy workers in Wisconsin have the opposite problem: Cows don’t take a day off. They must be milked twice, sometimes three times, a day, 365 days a year. In either case, farm labor means long hours of hard work.

Most Americans don’t see strong economic prospects in farming. But for many in Mexico or Central America, American farms and ranches represent a cherished opportunity.

And yet, for farmers, making sure the person you hire is here legally is often beyond reach. The law tells farmers not to question a job applicant’s papers unless they are obviously false. If a farmer questions a worker about his or her name, Social Security number or green card, the farmer is open to a lawsuit by the worker or even the U.S. Justice Department.

Mandating E-Verify for agriculture without an expanded guest worker program would make the situation worse. It would decimate the existing agricultural workforce without providing any workers to take their place.

These realities — a dearth of Americans who want to work on farms, people from outside the United States who do want to work on farms, and a law that virtually compels farmers to hire workers who are in the country illegally — give us the situation we have today.

The American Farm Bureau was encouraged last month when U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, the new chair of the House Immigration Subcommittee, proposed to tackle one aspect of this issue. Lofgren introduced H.R. 641, the Agricultural Worker Program Act of 2019, which, if passed, would provide a path to legalization for agricultural workers who are already here.

But this bill isn’t enough. U.S. agriculture needs a guest worker program that will help us replace the workers covered by the Lofgren bill as they age out or move to other sectors of the economy.

The current H-2A program, which is supposed to assist farmers and ranchers, too often falls short in meeting growers’ or workers’ needs. It must be flexible for growers by providing employment for at-will workers. And it should grant flexibility for growers who cannot construct housing, by allowing them to use a housing voucher for workers.

Some claim that guest worker programs depress U.S. wages, but the situation in agriculture clearly shows they do not. These jobs routinely pay well above minimum wage.

Others argue that H-2A workers surrender too many rights when they sign contracts, but workers who break the law and work outside the system are far more vulnerable to exploitation. Such workers often arrive after paying a coyote a hefty fee. They have no guaranteed housing, as with H-2A, and they will find it harder to return to the same farm year after year.

The contractual arrangement under the current H-2A program has worked for some growers, and it should remain available to those who need it. But the wage structure in H-2A does not reflect market realities.

In fact, the H-2A wage is not really a wage at all: It’s a tally based on often questionable surveys undertaken by the U.S. Department of Agriculture aimed at protecting a worker who doesn’t exist.

Better data that reflect actual wages paid to real workers would protect both workers and growers and support continued U.S. agricultural production.

Lofgren should be commended for her leadership. Now the hard work must begin by growers, worker advocates, Republicans, Democrats, the Trump administration and Congress. We need a 21st century solution that works for growers and workers alike.

Duvall, a beef, chicken and hay farmer in Georgia, is president of the American Farm Bureau Federation: @ZippyDuvall.

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