Ag Push for Farm Labor Bill Begins

Farmers, Others Call on Senate to Pass Ag Immigration Reforms in Lame-Duck Session

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Year-round dairy workers are excluded from the seasonal H-2A guest worker program, but the Farm Workforce Modernization Act would change the program to allow H-2A workers to remain in the country longer and work on farms such as dairy operations. (DTN file photo by Chris Clayton)

WASHINGTON (DTN) -- With the election now in the rear window and the change of House control now official, farmers and agribusiness leaders along with members of the House on Wednesday called on the Senate to take up and pass a version of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, a bill to modernize immigration for farmworkers.

Both farmers and farmworkers are lobbying on Capitol Hill this week to urge the Senate to act on farm worker immigration reform. Both farm and farmworker leaders fear if Republicans take control of the House, GOP leaders will not take up their carefully crafted compromise that passed the House in this Congress.

"Farmers and ranchers have taken time out from running their farms to come to Washington because they want the Senate to know that it's now or never when it comes to passing an ag labor reform bill," said Chuck Conner, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives.

Conner, who also chairs the Agricultural Workforce Coalition, added, "Farmers and their co-ops face increasing difficulty in filling thousands of on-farm jobs across the country. They know that if this effort fails, it will likely be many years before this labor crisis is addressed. That's why we are all speaking with one voice when saying to the Senate: Act now and pass ag labor reform."

Conner noted Sens. Michael Bennett, D-Colo., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, are working with their fellow senators to introduce a bill during the lame-duck session. The bill would need 60 votes to clear the procedural hurdles of the Senate, which means at least ten Republicans would also have to back the bill.

"While this might be a politically difficult issue, this is actually a pretty easy policy issue to solve," Conner said.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act passed the House in spring 2021 with bipartisan backing. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., one of the bill's lead authors, said without the adequate supply of workers, crops go unharvested. Newhouse also said the legislation would help secure the borders as well.

"All we need now is for the Senate to move it forward," he said.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., one of multiple California lawmakers who called on the Senate to act, also reiterated, "If you want order at the border, reform the immigration laws," she said.

Lofgren also pointed to the rising food costs facing consumers. "If we don't do something to improve the situation on labor, we're going to see further increases," Lofgren said.

For agriculture, the bill that passed the House would legalize hundreds of thousands of farm workers now in the country illegally. They could qualify for five-year renewable visas as well as options for permanent legal status depending on how long they have been in the U.S., and how long they can verify they have worked on farms.

The bill would also overhaul the H-2A visa program for farm workers, providing dairy farmers and other producers the opportunity to bring in workers for three-year visas, assuring year-round labor needs are met. There would be up to 20,000 initial year-round visas for the first three years -- with capacity to increase the visa volumes if the Department of Labor and the Department of Agriculture consider it necessary.

Additionally, the bill also includes provisions to help farm employers with housing assistance for H-2A workers, which includes potentially tapping into USDA's rural housing programs. At the same time, the bill also would eventually require agricultural employers to use the E-Verify system for all their employees, though the bill has provisions to phase in E-Verify depending on the number employees on the farm.

Shay Myers, CEO of Owyhee Produce in Idaho and Oregon, said his company grows more than 120 million pounds of produce every year. He said the company had to throw away more than 130,000 pounds of asparagus this year "because we couldn't get the workers we needed to harvest." Myers also called on Crapo to introduce the bill.

"We're running out of time. We're talking about survival. We're talking about giving us a fighting chance and U.S. agriculture to feed you and to do what we're passionate about and believe in," Myers said. "Food production will continue to be offshored if we don't address this."

Jim Bair, president and CEO of the U.S. Apple Association, said labor reform has been his group's top legislative priority for more than a decade. "It is the issue that keeps apple growers awake at night whether they employ 500 workers or 50. A grower can invest an entire year of care and expensive input costs, but if it's harvest time and workers are not available or arrive late, the crop can be lost."

Speaking for Idaho Dairymen's Association, Bob Naerabout, director of government affairs for the group, said the state is the third-leading dairy producer in the country. It's also among the most conservative states, but GOP lawmakers there understand the need to address labor challenges for dairy farmers, who are not allowed to use the H-2A visa program to bring in workers.

"Ninety percent of our employees are foreign born, but we do not qualify for any visa program," Naerebout said. "So you can figure out what the status of our employees are."

The American Farm Bureau Federation has opposed the House-passed bill.

But Jamie Johansson, president of the California Farm Bureau, said at a news conference Wednesday, "We represent over 30,000 farmers, ranchers and family farms in California. I also am a farmer."

"Now more than ever, efficiency is necessary to solve the problems on the grocery shelves and on our farms. We call on the Senate to act immediately in these last days of this Congress to get something done for American consumers, American farmers and the American labor force in agriculture."

The press conference Wednesday at the Capitol was organized by the American Business Immigration Coalition.

H.R.1603 Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2021…

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Chris Clayton