Can a Chaotic Washington D.C. Focus on the Ag Labor Crisis?
The headlines during last year’s presidential campaign were discouraging for labor-dependent agriculture. Lost in election broadsides over building a wall and legalizing sanctuary cities were very real concerns from American farmers about lack of available labor and the resulting cost to the economy.
Agriculture has long known that foreign hands will harvest their crops. Despite the average wage for field and livestock workers rising in 2016 to $12.20 nationwide, the agriculture labor force still declined and included almost no American- born participants. Therefore, the only question was whether those foreign hands would be harvesting U.S. grown crops or those produced in foreign countries.
Since last November, the ag labor crisis has only increased as immigration enforcement has stepped up and Congress has largely avoided the issue. Crops are going unharvested. Farmers following the rules are still having their farms raided and operations disrupted. The sole legal guest worker program that serves agriculture (H-2A) is swelling beyond the capacity of the federal government to manage it, as panicked farmers seek any available means of harvesting their crops.
Despite these challenging current events, Congress and the administration can solve this crisis. The solution is threefold: Bring today’s workforce out of the shadows with the benefit of legal work status combined with penalties to atone for past actions, create a new guest worker program that can evolve with agriculture’s future needs, and create a strong enforcement program to make sure all sides play by the rules.
Each of the specific elements of these three “pillars” is well known, achievable and can be implemented with today’s technology. What is lacking is the political will to solve them together. As agriculture has long advised Congress and the administration, building only one pillar at a time will lead to an inevitable collapse. The American economy and taxpayers will be left to clean up the debris.
Despite a long history of failure on the part of Congress and the executive branch to address comprehensive immigration reform, President Trump may have an historic opportunity to advance this issue. No administration in recent memory has the level of credibility gained from strong immigration enforcement as our current president. Additionally, his businesses were H-2A users, so he understands the importance of guest workers for essential tasks and has seen the shortcomings of the current program firsthand.
If the president can cut through some of the chaos and encourage action by Congress on immigration reform, the resulting economic benefits for agriculture and the U.S. could become one of the most substantial of all reforms for his administration.
By John Keeling, National Potato Council executive vice president and CEO