Congress to revisit Ag labor debate

Johnna Miller, Director of Media Development, interview
By American Farm Bureau Federation

Congress isn’t winning any popularity contests these days, but they may finally address an issue that could win them some favor with the nation’s farmers. American Farm Bureau Labor Specialist Paul Schlegel talks about it with AFBF’s Johnna Miller reports.

Miller: There are indications that Congress is going to take agriculture’s labor issues off the backburner when lawmakers get back to Capitol Hill. The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the issue. American Farm Bureau Labor Specialist Paul Schlegel says that’s an important first step.
Schlegel: This is movement. This is progress. We just have to keep our fingers crossed and keep our noses to the grindstone that we get what we need. We have to come up with a system that works.
Miller: Schlegel says it’s been a struggle to get lawmakers to understand the special circumstances farmers face.
Schlegel: Any farmer will tell you , if I don’t have the crew I need when I need them I’m going to lose my crop, I’m going to lose my investment, I’m going to lose my income. If you’re a dairy farmer, if there’s a raid or the workers don’t show up because they’re afraid of enforcement by immigration officials, the cows don’t get milked. Then you have to scramble to get your product out. Those are very real, tangible, economic impacts to farmers if we don’t get this problem solved and it’s only getting worse.
Miller: He says that’s because the immigration issue is so contentious. Regardless, agriculture needs a program that assures an adequate labor force.

It’s something we want to see Congress do. We absolutely, critically need a program. We need a program that works, that’s efficient, that gets our workers to the farms when we need them at a cost that is competitive for farmers.

Miller: We have two extra actualities with AFBF Labor Specialist Paul Schlegel. In the first extra actuality he talks about the scarcity of farm labor, despite the nation’s unemployment figures. The cut runs 32 seconds, in 3-2-1.
Schlegel: It’s one of those crazy situations. The Department of Labor itself spends money and gives training to people to get out of farm work. It’s not something that we train people to do. It’s hard. It’s episodic. It’s migratory in some instances. We have jobs for instance in the dairy sector where you get up early and you work a long day and it’s seven days a week, 365 days a year you’ve got to milk the cows and we need people that are doing that. There was a farmer in not long ago from Colorado offering to pay $15 an hour for beekeepers. Couldn’t find anybody. So even though the economy is depressed, we’re not finding the workers we need.
Miller: In the second extra actuality Schlegel describes what agriculture would like to see in any new labor program. The cut runs 51 seconds, in 3-2-1.

Ideally we are going to get a program which 1) covers all of agriculture. 2) We have to make sure that program gets farmers the workers they need when they need them and in an efficient, economic way. There can’t be an inflated wage. There can’t be requirements such as housing and transportation that are so onerous that the program is not going to keep a farmer economically competitive. And 3) once we have that program, we have to make sure there’s a sufficient transition period into that program. Today under H2A perhaps 60,000 to 80,000 workers come to the program. That’s compared to the one million roughly that we hire. We expect that a good program is going to provide us over a half million workers. So if you’re going from 60,000 to maybe 10 times that amount, you’re going to need time. In that timeframe we want to make sure that workers who have experience, that might not have the documentation are eligible to get into that program.

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