By TIM THORNBERRY
FRANKFORT, Ky. — If one issue has dominated agriculture across the country besides last year’s drought and farm bill failure, it could be labor – or lack thereof. So, the Agriculture Workforce Coalition (AWC), comprised of nearly a dozen existing agriculture groups, has formed to address and advocate for a suitable workforce.
Chuck Conner, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives (NCFC) – a member organization – said in talking with members from across the country, the most consistent concern is the difficulty many producers have had in the past few years finding enough workers to pick their crops, milk their cows or take care of their animals.
“That is why it is so important that a broad cross-section of agriculture come together in the AWC to work on a proposal that will ensure that both ag employers and their employees have access to a dependable and flexible program,” he said.
Conner added the AWC has developed principles that provide a framework that can help meet current and future employment needs of agriculture. According to information from the NCFC, “The proposal includes both an adjustment in status for current agricultural employees who lack documentation and a new, flexible market-based visa program to ensure that farmers will be able to find new skilled employees as current workers move on to new employment opportunities.”
The H-2A federal program has long been the main legal way to bring immigrant workers to farms across the country. But as national immigration laws have changed and stricter restrictions have passed state legislatures, the system, already full of red tape, is often difficult to navigate – and, some farmers say, too expensive.
Jerry Kozak, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF), another AWC member, said after seven years of hard but fruitless work on this issue, dairy farmers have a rare opportunity in 2013 to achieve a comprehensive solution to the immigration policy challenge.
“We see our participation in this coalition as the best chance to shape federal policies that will ensure farm employers’ continued access to both existing and future dairy workers,” he said.
American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) President Bob Stallman said it’s important for workers, farmers and especially consumers to have a legal, stable workforce in place.
“It’s time to move the discussion forward and find a solution. It’s time to meet agriculture’s labor crisis head on,” he said.
A statement from the National Assoc. of Wheat Growers noted: “AWC said it would put forward a framework for reform including two components: an agricultural worker program to replace the current H-2A visa program, which is widely considered problematic, and adjustments to current short-term labor programs used by ag operations.
“The agriculture worker program would provide visas for up to 11 months for ‘at will’ employees or a year for contract employees, with employees required to spend a period of time in their home countries at regular intervals.”
Information from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security states the current H-2A program is managed by three federal agencies. The Department of Labor issues the H-2 labor certifications and oversees compliance with labor laws; U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services adjudicates the H-2 petitions, and the Department of State issues the visas to the workers at consulates overseas.
With such a complex system, many immigrant laborers are here illegally and, since tougher state laws have been passed – such as in Georgia, Alabama and Arizona – some farmers have faced tremendous shortages in the workforce.
The Obama administration has promised to make the immigration issue a top priority this year. On Monday the Los Angeles Times reported a bipartisan group of senators has agreed on a plan to grant legal status to most of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States, which could form the basis for a far-reaching overhaul of immigration laws this year.
Frank Gasperini, executive vice president and CEO of the National Council of Agricultural Employers (NCAE), said the current H-2 visa programs are badly flawed and poorly administered, and a new model is needed.
“NCAE is proud to be part of the large industry coalition represented in the AWC, and we look to our elected officials to take action in 2013 to assure the future of domestic labor-intensive agriculture, in the form of immigration reforms which allow current workers to remain and provides a workable program for new arrivals,” he said.
Besides the NCFC, NMPF, NCAE and AFBF, the groups forming the AWE include the American Nursery and Landscape Assoc., Florida Fruit and Vegetable Assoc., USA Farmers, U.S. Apple Assoc., United Fresh Produce Assoc., Western Growers Assoc. and Western United Dairymen.