Labor shortage Threatens 2016 Crops
Hazelton-Farmer Rick Brune has dodged hail, rain, heat and infestations this summer but he says he can’t dodge the toughest calamity this summer, the lack of farm labor.
“In the Magic Valley its become a big issue because bigger companies like Cliff Bar, Chobani, and Stanlee Hay have taken a lot of the part time employees and made them full time workers.” Brune says competition pushed up labor wages and the supply of workers has dried up even more this year because of H-2A paper delays earlier this year. He says farmers are not seeing the young first time workers from Mexico anymore. “It’s really difficult if you can find workers and even if we found them we can’t compete with $18-$20 dollars an hour, The pool of available labor has dried up,” added Brune.
The Department of Labor delays in processing visas for workers have led to a chronic worker shortage not only in Idaho but across the nation. The American Farm Bureau got involved saying they fear that crops will rot in the nation’s fields this year and communication with state Farm Bureaus across the nation have revealed worker shortages in more than 20 states.
"Many farmer members have called us and state Farm Bureaus asking for help," Duvall said. "They face serious hurdles in getting visas for workers in time to tend and harvest this year's crops. Paperwork delays have created a backlog of 30 days or more in processing H-2A applications at both the Department of Labor and United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.”
Farmers have relied on the H-2A agricultural visa program to fill gaps in the nation's Ag labor system but Duvall says the program is far from perfect. Processing and procedural delays, such as the government use of US postal service instead of electronic communications mean losses from unharvested crops. Duvall says this is a serious issue that won't go away without wholesale changes. "If you have a crop that's ready and your harvest window is narrow and your workers show up late-you'll lose your crop. We're going to have to make a choice, we either have to import our labor, workers to harvest our crops-or we'll have to import our food.”
An informal survey of state Farm Bureaus revealed that farmers in at least 22 states using the H-2A program have been affected by administrative delays that have caused workers to arrive days and even weeks late, leading to a variety of fruits, vegetables and other crops rotting in the field. The situation is just as dire for Idaho Farm Bureau President Bryan Searle. He says labor is a huge concern in Idaho and says the H-2A program is broken.
“But we’ve used it and still do. There’s encouraging developments in Washington and I hope its in time, we’re relying on friends and family to help us this year. We’re reaching out to people to see if they can take a week off in the fall to help out. We have family coming back to the farm that haven't been back in years. Migrant labor means a lot to US Agriculture, the paper work is discouraging us its difficult to find someone that wants to do hard work,” said Searle.
Duvall said the Labor Department too often fails to comply with rules that require it to respond to farmers' requests before crews are needed. "Crops can't wait on paperwork," Duvall said. "DOL is routinely failing to approve applications 30 days prior to the day farmers need workers. That delay, coupled with delays occurring at USCIS, places farmers in an impossible situation. We've heard from members who are already missing their window of opportunity to harvest. They are already facing lost revenue.”
Duvall repeated AFBF's call for Congress to pass responsible immigration reform that provides farmers access to a legal and stable workforce. He also outlined possible solutions to the challenge, including modernizing agency H-2A approval procedures. He said DOL and USCIS both rely on sending documents to farmers by regular mail, which he called "unacceptable in 2016.”
Illegal Mexican immigrants living in the US has dropped by a million since 2007, according to a Pew Center report. Meanwhile the US Census Bureau reveals the number of new immigrants crossing the border was down to 240,000 last year. The number of illegal migrants peaked in 2000 at 875,000. The numbers reveal that strict border enforcement under the Bush administration started the decline, plus Mexico’s economy is stronger while generating more jobs plus a decrease in births, according to the Migrant Policy Institute.
None of these stats are alarming to Idaho farmers, they’ve seen fewer illegal Mexican workers between 2002 and 2012, thats when the number of new field workers on U.S.farms fell by 75 percent according to the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives.
“The AFBF has worked tirelessly on labor reform for 20 years now, we’ve held our ground, we’ve improved a few things and we hope to move forward,” said Searle who attended the AFBF Labor meetings in Washington in July. Duvall said AFBF is also working with the Agriculture Department "to be an advocate for farmers and take whatever steps it can to ensure farmers get the workers they need to harvest this year's crops.” Farm Bureau is calling for Congress to pass responsible immigration reform that provides farmers access to a legal and stable workforce.