Growing the farm labor supply

I grow row crops and tobacco in Lee County on land my family has been farming for five generations. We plant 25 acres and need between two and 12 people for a few months each year at planting and harvest time.

This year, just like every year, I tried to find local workers. I raised wages to the point that I knew I was going to lose money. I offered jobs to everyone who applied, but still couldn’t find enough workers to get the job done.

I am typical of farmers like me – small- to medium-sized growers with labor-intensive crops. I look at my workers’ identification and fill out I-9 employment forms like I’m supposed to – the last thing I want is to put my business at risk by hiring illegal workers.

Because U.S. workers routinely reject farm work, my best option for hiring legal workers is to participate in the federal H-2A guest worker program. But that program is too bureaucratic, too slow and too expensive. I’ve been able to make it work – barely – but it gets more difficult and expensive each year.

Many growers around the country have found the H-2A program is simply too inflexible to meet their dynamic labor needs and are willing to take calculated risks with whomever they can find to plant and harvest the crops.

The single biggest thing that labor-intensive agriculture has in common across the country is that we are all short on workers, legal or otherwise, even in this depressed economy where many areas have 8 percent unemployment or higher. Whether you live in the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida or out West in California, Oregon or Washington, and whether you grow tobacco, sweet potatoes, Christmas trees, fruit or vegetables – we’re in serious trouble. The future of this country’s food supply is in jeopardy.

These labor shortages on the farm are real and they are not going to improve. It is only going to get worse. Rural America continues to change as the population declines through relocation and fewer U.S. workers will accept temporary farm jobs that involve manual labor outdoors.

As the economy improves, there will be even fewer U.S. workers who choose to do farm work. And as government enforcement of immigration laws gets more effective, workers with bogus papers will no longer be able to get jobs, even on the farm.

There is only one way out of this agricultural labor crisis for our nation: a workable, streamlined way to hire legal foreign workers who want to fill these critical farm jobs. But after more than a decade of contentious debate, Washington still hasn’t solved this problem.

The good news is that farmers like me who are trying to survive are starting to come together and propose new ideas. Under pressure from growers, several bills were introduced in Congress this year to streamline or replace the broken H-2A program – and in one case proposed letting illegal farm workers go home and return legally on temporary work visas. But nothing passed – because Democrats and Republicans couldn’t agree.

It’s the same old story: Most Democrats oppose temporary worker programs and prefer to grant legal status to unauthorized workers, while most Republicans favor visa programs and oppose legalization. The time has come to do both – at the same time.

Create a truly workable, modern, temporary agricultural worker program and provide a way for undocumented farm hands to participate in the new program without including the controversial pathway to citizenship provision that the majority of Americans reject as amnesty.

Several farm groups, including the American Farm Bureau, are developing just such a compromise and I pray that they are successful – and fast.
The agricultural labor problem is not just a problem for America’s farmers, it’s a problem for America. If we don’t have enough labor to plant and harvest our crops here, we’ll soon be buying nearly all of our food from abroad. That is unacceptable.

Our leaders in Washington need to ensure that farmers have access to a sufficient and legal labor force so that we can continue to provide America with a safe, affordable, abundant and domestically produced food supply.

Now that the election is over, lawmakers are looking ahead to their agendas for next year – and a labor fix for agriculture must be at the top of their lists. We must put aside our partisan differences and the grandstanding we’re all so sick of and start finding answers. We need Congress to come together around a deal that works – for American farmers, American workers and foreigners who want to work in the U.S. legally.
The time is now – we can do this.

Lee Wicker of Wicker Farms in Lee County is deputy director of the N.C. Growers Association.

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