By SHELLY STRAUTZ-SPRINGBORN
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Sound agricultural labor policy remains an issue of national and global importance, according to Frank Gasperini, executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers (NCAE).
He discussed labor issues facing fruit and vegetable growers at the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable and Farm Market Expo at the DeVos Place Convention Center in Grand Rapids last month.
“Overall worker eligibility – a sufficient, experienced and legal workforce – remains the No. 1 hurdle to continued U.S. domestic food and nursery production, and to the future leadership of the U.S.A. in feeding a world population of nine billion people,” Gasperini said. “We can grow the food to feed nine billion people, but whether we have the labor is an issue.”
Gasperini said “the nation’s borders are tighter than they have been in 40 years” and intense border security has nearly halted migration from Mexico. In addition, he said silent raids by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), unworkable H-2 programs, aggressive wage and hour audits, state and local labor restrictions and actions by the Internal Revenue Service contributed to 20-50 percent labor shortages nationally in 2012.
“The inability to assure sufficient, timely, predictable and globally competitive labor inputs is a monumental threat to American agriculture,” Gasperini said.
“Hungry nations are unstable nations. Failure to feed the growing world population will result in global instability, warfare and disrupted business opportunity for ag.”
There are more than 1.5 million seasonal agricultural workers in the United States and each worker supports 2-3 full-time agribusiness jobs in rural America, according to Gasperini.
“Competition for agricultural labor, including seasonal and temporary workers, is fast becoming a global competition,” he said. “No one can produce the safe and affordable food nine billion people will eat, more efficiently and economically than the American farmer. If we fail to provide the opportunity, then even our own food production will move offshore.”
To address agriculture’s unique labor needs, Gasperini said policymakers must continue to focus on immigration reform. He said over-regulation must be addressed.
“Domestic producers, particularly specialty and labor-intensive producers, face a continually growing, confusing and aggressively enforced and litigated patchwork of regulations,” he said.
Maureen Torrey of Torrey Farms in Elba, N.Y., has taken a proactive approach to policies and procedures to ensure the farm is in compliance with its seasonal workers. During the labor session at the Expo, she suggested farm managers designate one person on their farm to oversee labor issues.
She also offered a “toolbox” approach for producers with simple steps to follow that will help employers comply with complex labor laws. “Keep good records and only keep what the law requires,” Torrey advised.
She said it’s imperative to be familiar with labor laws and to create a network of resources including other growers, people from governmental agencies and farm organization involvement such as Farm Bureau and the National Council of Agricultural Employers. Torrey said she puts a significant amount of effort into establishing relationships and educating local officials and their staff about agriculture, and her work has paid off.
Citing an instance where an unexpected raid took their farm’s seasonal workforce during the morning of a major harvest day, Torrey said through her documentation and connections with local leaders, she was able to get the workers back that same morning.
“We work with our labor. They’re our No. 1 asset,” she said. “Our farm operation is only as good as our labor.”