Ag Labor Shortages

American Farm Bureau's 100th annual meeting emphasized a need for solutions to a dwindling workforce.

Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, spoke at the group’s 100th annual meeting recently held in New Orleans. Duvall talked about Farm Bureau’s history of becoming a united voice for agriculture when it comes to issues affecting agriculture, Image by Chris Clayton

Agriculture faces a lot of issues moving into 2019, but none so serious as farm labor.

“It’s the biggest issue that our farmers face across America,” Zippy Duvall told reporters after his speech at American Farm Bureau Federation’s centennial meeting recently in New Orleans.

Duvall says he recognizes the difficulty of finding a solution that involves foreign guest workers while the federal government, at the time of the meeting, was shut down in a fight over a southern border wall. He hopes there is an opportunity to work on agricultural labor issues and, ideally, boost the guest-worker program for agriculture but notes the divided Congress and heated debate going on right now over the wall will make finding a solution challenging.

“I know over the last several years when I would come to the Hill to talk about immigration, everybody’s speech back to me would be, ‘Well, we can’t consider immigration or ag labor until we secure the border.’ Hopefully, we are on the path to securing that border, and we can have some serious conversations about solving some of our problems,” Duvall says.


Duvall adds 2018 was a perfect storm for farmers with a combination of natural disasters, low prices, a trade war, labor shortages, lower incomes and rising debt. He recalls an emotional conversation with a dairy farmer who had to put his farm up for sale last year.

“Farmers are doing some bad things to themselves across the country because they don’t know a way out,” Duvall believes.

There were positive notes last year, he adds. In what he says was a productive policy year for farmers, tax reform went into effect, doubling the estate tax exemption for producers.

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In addition, the farm bill was passed, with Farm Bureau organizing its efforts through more state-to-state communications so everyone understands what each state needs out of the legislation. Duvall notes the bill improves risk-management tools, protects crop insurance “as the cornerstone” for the farmer safety net and provides more funding for trade and rural development, as well as more programs for beginning farmers.

“Just about everything in those recommendations came out in this farm bill,” Duvall says.


With President Donald Trump giving a keynote address at the meeting, Duvall says the administration “gives us a seat at the table.” With that, Farm Bureau needs to work to complete the EPA Waters of the U.S. Rule in 2019, as well as get Congress to approve the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).

“It’s our time now. We’ve got to get it through Congress. This president can’t do it by himself,” Duvall stresses.

Trump and some of his advisers have suggested withdrawing from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as a way to spur Congress to vote on the USMCA. Duvall says he has concerns about the president taking such action.

“If he withdraws from NAFTA, it would be crushing for American agriculture, so, we’re going to be trying to encourage him not to do that,” Duvall says. “I know it’s probably a leverage tool for him, but, we’re going to do everything in our power with our grassroots and through our state farm bureaus to encourage or educate Congress as to what this treaty is going to do for us moving forward, because it’s a very, very important treaty that we need to continue before he does pull us out of NAFTA.”

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., also believes it would be a bad idea for the president to withdraw from NAFTA, arguing it would give more leverage to free-trade opponents who want to reopen the USMCA negotiations.

“It’s a bad outcome for Kansas agriculture and U.S. agriculture,” Moran says.

Also, on the trade front, Duvall stresses the U.S. needs allies to tackle China. He says they will encourage the president to work with other countries on a solution for trade problems caused by China.

“China’s just not mistreating us, they are mistreating a lot of other players in the world, and I think they are fed up, too,” Duvall says. “I think there are some other countries out there that would like to help us.”

Duvall adds the major trade negotiations U.S. farmers want to see worked on are the agreements with Japan, the European Union and the United Kingdom.


When President Trump spoke to Farm Bureau members, he came looking for a friendly crowd to help him in the battle with Congress over the partial government shutdown, which was in full swing at the time of the meeting. Duvall says farmers were being affected by the need for disaster loans, trade mitigation payments and getting the new farm bill implemented. The shutdown impacted all.

Duvall says while Farm Bureau supports border security, the group’s policy doesn’t say what a secure border should look like. It is silent on a wall.

“We think we need the protection, and, when people come across, we need to hold them accountable,” Duvall says. “I think when we do that, it’s going to give us a better opportunity to speak to Congress about the needs we have for labor and find a fix for our problems.”

At press time, Trump had signed a bill to reopen the government for roughly three weeks after backing down from his requirement of funds for a border wall before federal agencies could go back to work.


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