Immigration reform is a contentious, often emotional, topic for many Americans. But for U.S. agriculture, it’s mainly a labor issue. As the busy summer season gets underway, experts from Syngenta and the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) weigh in on how to best address this issue that is top-of-mind among so many growers—and for good reason.
In California, for instance, many fruit and vegetable growers who can’t get workers are switching to less labor-intensive row crops, said Kristi Boswell, director of congressional relations for the AFBF. As a result of labor shortages, farmers no longer grow more than 80,000 acres of fresh produce. Instead, that production has moved to other countries.
The issue is also impacting the feed market. Dairies and other livestock operators who can’t hire workers are no longer in the market for feedstuffs or are dumping feed, formerly used to maintain their livestock, onto the market. A 2012 Texas A&M study found that dairy farms using migrant labor supply more than three-fifths of the milk in the country. Without these employees, the study predicts economic output would decline by $22 billion and 133,000 workers would lose their jobs.
Each farm worker—whether native-born or immigrant— supports between two and three full-time jobs in food processing, transportation, farm equipment and marketing retail. The loss of a substantial number of farm workers could ripple through the entire ag-based economy with potentially long-term negative effects.
For immigration reform to work, it must take two approaches, Boswell said. First, protect current workers, since many farms are already employing experienced workers they want to keep. The AFBF is among the groups advocating for an earned adjustment of status to allow those experienced immigrant workers to remain. That change would likely include an incentive for the workers to keep working in agriculture for a predetermined period. This is not necessarily a pathway to citizenship, Boswell noted.
Second, the government must reinvent the agricultural guest worker program. “To work for agriculture, the guest worker program must be a cost-effective, market-based system,” Boswell said. Currently, the guest worker program supplies just 4 percent of the needed agricultural workforce. Without a legal way for workers to enter the country, many cross the border illegally to fill the open jobs.
“At the end of the day, farmers want a legal, affordable, reliable workforce,” said Ryan Findlay, industry relations lead for Syngenta. “The quicker the better. Agriculture needs this now.”
Boswell couldn’t agree more. “Congress must act. We are at the point where we will import labor or food,” she said, pointing to a study done by AFBF that showed only enforcing the borders— without immigration reform—will cost $30 billion to $60 billion in agricultural production and increase food prices by 5 to 6 percent.
She encourages all ag professionals to call their legislators and ask for immigration reform. “Allowing legislators to ignore it because of political pressure is not acceptable,” she said. “We need to make immigration laws work the way they were intended. Doing nothing—or just enforcement—is not an option for agriculture any longer.”