The Mid Atlantic Poultry Farmer a supplement to the Delmarva Farmer

Ag labor is agenda of AFBF


(Editor’s note: Daniel Bautista is director of Lasher Laboratory 
at University of Delaware.)

(June 2017) — As a member of the LEADelaware class IV, I had the opportunity to go to Capitol Hill last April and meet with Delaware legislators, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the American Soybean Board, and USDA leadership. It was very educational for me to say the least, and the timing was unique in terms of the Farm Bill and other major Ag concerns in a time of transition by new administration.
The topics are broad and comprehensive, but the problems that farmers have to deal with on a daily basis are real.
I would like to focus on the potentially sensitive topic of immigration and Ag labor reform from the standpoint of the American Farm Bureau Federation.
• Agricultural Labor: Immigration Reform. Farmers and ranchers need a reliable, skilled workforce. Farm work is challenging, often seasonal and transitory, and it’s not easy to find American workers to take on these jobs. Farm labor can’t all be replaced by machines either. There are certain farm jobs, like tending livestock and pruning or picking fresh produce, which require a human touch. Where American workers are unwilling or unavailable, workers from other countries have stepped in.
Congress needs to pass responsible immigration reform that addresses agriculture’s current experienced workforce and creates a new flexible guest worker program. Instability in the agricultural workforce places our food supply at risk — increasing immigration enforcement without also reforming our worker visa program will cost America $60 billion in agricultural production. The Farm Bureau supports legislative reform that provides access to a legal and stable agricultural workforce in the short- and long-term. Stability will be provided through:
The creation of a new market-based visa program that is available to both seasonal and year round farmers, administered by the USDA, and that provides flexibility for employers and workers by allowing contract and at-will employment options, and an adjustment of status for experienced, but unauthorized, agricultural workers.
• Economic Impact of Immigrant Labor to Agriculture: Agriculture needs anywhere from 1.5 -2 million hired workers.Labor costs account for 48 percent of the variable production costs for fresh fruits and 35 percent of variable costs for fresh vegetables. The current labor situation is most acute for delicate berries and easily bruised produce. Harvesting costs for strawberries, blackberries and cherries account for about 60-66 percent of total production costs, making labor the primary harvest expense. People are needed to judge which fruit are ready to be picked and which need to be left to ripen. Many migrants who begin their careers as farm laborers move on to other sectors of the economy or less demanding positions after several years. This progression leads to farmers often being the first to bear the negative economic impacts of decreased border crossings and migrant labor shortages. At least 50-70 percent of farm laborers in the country today are unauthorized. Few U.S. workers are willing to fill available farm labor jobs.
• Challenges of the H-2A Program. 72 percent of growers reported that workers arrived on average of 22 days after the “date of need.” The program provides less than 4 percent of the hired workers needed in agriculture. Entering into the H-2A program has been found to increase the obstacles that farmers face in order to hire and maintain employees. Only 8 percent of employers report that they were audited before they participated in the H-2A program, but 35 percent report being audited since entering the program.A survey found that 47 percent of employers were “not at all satisfied” or only “slightly satisfied” with the H-2A program.Farmers and even professional H-2A agents are routinely forced to hire lawyers to help them get through the process successfully.
• Labor Impacts on Imports: A study found that when comparing the two year periods between 1998-2000 and 2010-12, the share of fresh produce consumed in America that was imported rose by 73.9 percent.Without an adequate supply of labor American farmer are at a competitive disadvantage.
Americans ate 6.6 billion more pounds of imported fresh fruits and vegetables in 2010-12 than they ate from 1998-2000.
The farm labor shortage explains as much as $3.3 billion in missed GDP growth in 2012. It also accounts for $1.3 billion in farm income that wasn’t realized that year.Had U.S. growers not faced labor challenges — and been able to maintain the share of fresh produce they provided to the domestic market from 1998-2000 — America would have boasted more than 89,000 more jobs in 2012. American GDP would have grown by almost $12.4 billion in 2012 and produced almost $4.9 billion more in annual farm revenues. Almost 75 percent of that $12.4 billion in GDP growth would have been due to increased economic activity in the non-farm parts of the economy that year.
• Effects of “Enforcement Only” Immigration Reform: The impacts of an enforcement only approach to immigration would be detrimental to the agricultural industry.
If agriculture were to lose access to all undocumented workers, agricultural output would fall by $30 to $60 billion.
The enforcement only option would increase food prices by 5-6 percent, with domestic fruit production off by 30-61 percent and vegetable production down 15-31 percent. The livestock sector would also suffer lost production in the 13-27 percent range. The ideal approach would be enforcement with an adjustment of status and a redesigned guest worker program. This approach would result in no increase in food prices. There would be minimal decreases in fruit, vegetable, grain, and livestock production.
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