Commentary: A labor plan for all farmers

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For far too long, farmers and ranchers have had to struggle to make sure that they have a legal, reliable supply of workers.  The reality has been a daunting, broken system, riddled with shortcomings that have resulted in labor shortages, lost crops, bureaucratic nightmares and neighbors competing with one another to get the farm hands they need.

Farmers from around the country all feel the pain. From Washington state apple growers to New York dairy producers, there is an across-the-board shortage of labor for hire. Agriculture needs and deserves a legal, stable workforce, and the Farm Bureau has a plan.

Flexibility and Stability Matter

The Farm Bureau, along with other organizations in the agricultural community, is working on a solution for farmers and ranchers in all sectors, in all regions and for all commodities. What Farm Bureau is bringing to the discussion is a plan that we think will accommodate all of agriculture—from a grower who needs to hire harvesters for only a few days, to a dairy that needs a workforce 365 days of the year.  The crux of Farm Bureau’s plan is to establish and implement a new visa program that would give both employers and employees stability and flexibility into the future, while also addressing the current workforce that has contributed to our farms and communities.  Both elements are necessary to provide a long-term, stable and legal workforce.

Building on how the domestic market currently operates, farmers would be permitted to offer migrant laborers either a contract or at-will work.  Similarly, workers would be able to choose their form of employment. With a contract, both employers and workers would be provided longer-term stability, and the worker could have a visa term of up to 12 months. On the other hand, the at-will option offers flexibility to employers who may just need a week’s worth of harvesting, while allowing workers the portability to work at other seasonal jobs for up to 11 months.  This program reflects real-life workforce challenges and provides both the flexibility and stability that domestic workers enjoy.

Just as important, the plan would allow key migrant workers—those who have been working in U.S. agriculture for a defined period, as well as those who are in management and other key positions at a farm—the ability to stay in the U.S. and continue to work in the agriculture sector.

Eliminating Rigidity

Since its inception, the H-2A temporary agricultural worker program has been riddled with problems, creating more challenges than providing solutions. Because of the diverse special labor needs within farming, the program has been difficult for growers to use, is not even available to some sectors of agriculture like dairy and simply is not feasible in some parts of the country.  Farm Bureau’s plan would remedy many of H-2A’s failings by offering real-world solutions that better meet both employers’ and workers’ needs. Over time, as farmers begin using the new visa program, we imagine H-2A will become obsolete.

A market-based, flexible agricultural worker program makes sense and is long overdue.  It is important for workers, farmers and especially consumers that agricultural producers have access to a legal, stable workforce for the future.  With all of agriculture working together, we are optimistic we can offer Congress a reasonable, practical, common-sense solution that works for growers while respecting the rights of workers. It is time to move the discussion forward and find a solution that works for all farmers and ranchers.

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Bob Milligan    
St. Paul MN  |  October, 19, 2012 at 08:55 AM

A wll designed agricultural worker program is needed and would benefit agriculture greatly as would well designed immigration reform. Neither, however, is the total solution. The hottest topic in our tightly contested presidential race is creating jobs. Fifty years of research by the Gallop Foundation, supported by other researchers, shows clearly that the key to engaged, productive employees is not compensation or working conditions. The key to hiring and retaining productive, engaged workers is giving them a great supersvisor. WOW! I see an opportunity for agriculture that we have control over instead of having to depend on grovernment regulations. How about you?

Indiana  |  October, 19, 2012 at 08:58 AM

Here's a thought and I know this will sound crazy to some of you, but how about, hiring AMERICANS for a change? I'm so sick of all the whining about migrant workers. Hire Americans and actually pay them. The biggest issue the Ag sector has with a migrant workforce is just that they all try to be cheapskates and only want to pay minimum wage or below if they can get away with it. Quit trying to get around the legal system and pony up and pay someone for actually working. I'm a dairy farmer and we've never had migrant workers. Not because we wouldn't hire them, but because we pay people what they deserve and treat them with respect. We always have a steady workforce.

October, 19, 2012 at 09:03 AM

unfortunatley people want cheap food. and alot of people don't like the hard manual labor that some farming jobs are

mike richter    
ILLINOIS  |  October, 19, 2012 at 11:39 AM

The notion that we are cheapskates is offensive. Ag producers could and would pay more if there was more money on the table. Ever since the bill clinton years i wondered who has been better off the workers or the owners. After hearing our cic state that I didn't build anything I guess is the reason I feel distraught.

Indiana  |  October, 19, 2012 at 12:35 PM

It's time people started paying more for food anyway. And as far as finding more people for actual laboring work, if the govt didn't hand out unemployment for life, maybe people would actually get back to work and take jobs that are available. Even if it's not what they "intended" to do.

October, 19, 2012 at 02:47 PM


Michigan  |  October, 20, 2012 at 05:41 AM

I know a person who will only work part time because this person gets more welfare then my husband and I get for SS and pension...per year...These people do not want to work...They would rather collect Welfare....That is another system that needs to be fixed....There is a lot of people out there who know how to work the system, while you and I slave away to make a living....

Indiana  |  October, 20, 2012 at 06:03 AM

Maybe we farmers could just produce what we have labor to produce. This would let prices rise and make room for the next generation to join production ag. It is tuff to compete with large producers that pay employees less than the cost of living, and then pay taxes so these employees can collect public assistance for their families.

October, 21, 2012 at 07:44 PM

Cheap migrant labor gives an unfair competetive advantage to the big operations by preventing the smaller one man operators from earning a fair wage for their effort. There is land here that could and until recently did support many small herds of 20-50 cows that sit idle now because owner-operators could get anything like a reasonable return. All you feedlot operators complaining about the lack of calves need to think about something else besides how little you can get away with paying. Also the last few animal abuse cases reported involved low skill low wage employees working under deplorable conditions.

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