By CELESTE BAUMGARTNER
WASHINGTON D.C. — Farmers need a steady supply of legal workers, Kristi Boswell of American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) Congressional Relations told Ohio Farm Bureau county presidents on their recent trip to Washington. For that reason, agriculture cannot stay out of the immigration debate.
“Currently, about 70 percent of the immigrant workforce is undocumented,” she said. “To ensure short-term stability in this sector we need to make sure we can keep those experienced agricultural workers.”
The current guest worker program, H-2A, is riddled with problems and expensive, Boswell said. Plus, it does not include the year-round labor force – dairy farms, for example, can’t access H-2A because they’re not seasonal.
With those issues in mind, the AFBF put together a Farm Bureau staff from different parts of the country, Boswell said. They talked with different groups, trying to find the best solution that fit the mold for everyone.
“They came up with the Agriculture Workforce Coalition, which is a newly formed coalition that AFBF is a part of and includes a broad swath of labor-intensive agricultural interests,” she said. “That coalition is a huge development, that we are all united around one proposal in agriculture, we have one uniform message.”
That message is a new proposal: A short-term solution for keeping the experienced agricultural workers, who may be undocumented, by granting them the ability to gain work authorization in the United States, Boswell explained.
“We did not address the broader political question, whether that is a pathway to citizenship or permanent legal residency,” she said. “We are focusing on keeping a legal workforce and granting work authorization for those workers.”
That authorization would give workers the ability to work in the United States, but they would have a continued commitment to work in agriculture for a set term, she said.
“We need to make sure we have access to legal workers,” Boswell said. “Let’s find something that works, that is not bureaucratic, that is market-based at its framework. We want to pay that reasonable, market-based wage that it takes to attain and keep an experienced workforce.”
The goal of the Agriculture Coalition and AFBF’s goal is a program that works in agriculture, is affordable, easy to operate, provides adequate worker protection and treats workers fairly, Boswell said.
She stressed the importance of the county Farm Bureau presidents relating their stories to their legislators. The legislators will listen to the producers more than to a lobbyist, she said; if producers have had problems finding a legal labor force, they should tell that story.
Ron Pickworth, president of the Lorain County Farm Bureau, has dairy farms in his county that needed year-round help, and nurseries which have other problems.
“One of the largest nurseries in the state is in this area,” he said. “They use a lot of immigrant help. They’ve had problems with getting enough help that is legal. They go through the paperwork, but it is hard to tell if the paperwork is legitimate.”
“The problem affects all of us and we need to stand together, and make sure the legislators understand that,” Boswell said. “We need to have a future flow program that allows us to access labor.”
For more information on the coalition, visit www.agworkforcecoal