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Opinion

Op-Ed: America has a farm labor shortage. We need a better guest worker program

File - In this Aug. 17, 2016, file photo, a farm worker trims grape vines in a vineyard in Clarksbur
A farm worker trims grape vines in a vineyard in Clarksburg, Calif. on Aug. 17, 2016.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Americans expect a lot from farmers and ranchers: fresh, unblemished fruits and vegetables, locally grown and responsibly harvested.

In California, farmers and ranchers produce more than 400 commodities. That’s more than a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts. California farm receipts exceeded $50 billion in 2017.

This prodigious output isn’t automatic and doesn’t happen by chance. American agriculture relies on hundreds of thousands of skilled workers to plant the fields, tend the crops, harvest the produce and pack it for markets both here and abroad. We don’t have enough of these workers.

For many in Mexico or Central America, American farms and ranches represent a cherished opportunity.
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This is true not just in California, which employs more agricultural workers than any other state. I hear the same refrain from dairy farmers in Wisconsin; cherry producers in Michigan; tobacco growers in North Carolina; sweet potato farmers in Louisiana; citrus growers in Florida; and livestock farmers in Texas.

Farming’s labor system is broken. We need to fix it.

Let’s start with a few truths. The first is that less than 2% of Americans grow up on farms. But shifting demographics are only part of the challenge.

Farm work is episodic and often seasonal, and fruits and vegetables have a short window to be harvested, packed and shipped to market. Dairy workers have the opposite problem: Cows don’t take a day off. They must be milked twice, sometimes three times, a day, 365 days a year. In either case, farm labor means long hours of hard work.

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Most Americans don’t see strong economic prospects in farming. But for many in Mexico or Central America, American farms and ranches represent a cherished opportunity.

And yet, for farmers, making sure the person you hire is here legally is often beyond reach. The law tells farmers not to question a job applicant’s papers unless they are obviously false. If a farmer questions a worker about his or her name, Social Security number or green card, the farmer is open to a lawsuit by the worker or even the U.S. Justice Department.

Mandating E-Verify for agriculture without an expanded guest worker program would make the situation worse. Instead it would decimate the existing agricultural workforce without providing any workers to take their place.

These realities — a dearth of Americans who want to work on farms, people from outside the U.S. who do want to work on farms, and a law that virtually compels farmers to hire workers who are in the country illegally — give us the situation we have today.

The American Farm Bureau was encouraged last month when Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), the new chair of the House Immigration Subcommittee, proposed to tackle one aspect of this issue. Lofgren introduced H.R. 641, the Agricultural Worker Program Act of 2019, which, if passed, would provide a pathway to legalization for agricultural workers who are already here.

But this bill isn’t enough. U.S. agriculture needs a guest worker program that will help us replace the workers covered by the Lofgren bill as they age out or move to other sectors of the economy.

The current H-2A program, which is supposed to assist farmers and ranchers, too often falls short in meeting growers’ or workers’ needs. California growers traditionally don’t employ their workers through such arrangements. As a result, although H-2A is expanding in California, it still represents a small portion of the workforce.

The guest worker program needs to work for all growers in all states. It must be flexible for growers in California by providing employment for at-will workers. And it should grant flexibility for growers who cannot construct housing, by allowing them to use a housing voucher for workers.

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Some claim that guest worker programs depress U.S. wages, but the situation in agriculture clearly shows they do not. These jobs routinely pay well above minimum wage.

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Others argue that H-2A workers surrender too many rights when they sign contracts, but workers who break the law and work outside the system are far more vulnerable to exploitation. Such workers often arrive after paying a coyote a hefty fee. They have no guaranteed housing, as with H-2A, and they will find it harder to return to the same farm year after year.

The contractual arrangement under the current H-2A program has worked for some growers, and it should remain available to those who need it. But the wage structure in H-2A does not reflect market realities.

In fact, the H-2A wage is not really a wage at all: It’s a tally based on often questionable surveys undertaken by the U.S. Department of Agriculture aimed at protecting a worker who doesn’t exist. Better data that reflect actual wages paid to real workers would protect both workers and growers and support continued U.S. agricultural production.

Lofgren should be commended for her leadership. Now the hard work must begin by growers, worker advocates, Republicans, Democrats, the Trump administration and Congress. We need a 21st century solution that works for growers and workers alike.

Zippy Duvall is president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

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