Sarah Welliver/Standard-Examiner/AP/File
Clyde Nelson digs out sandy soil for a retention pond using a tractor on Feb. 12, 2018 in Ogden, Utah. Labor shortages in the region have forced some farmers to plow over crops ready for harvest, leading to huge economic losses.

Farmers lobby for immigration reform to address labor shortages

The American Farm Bureau is lobbying for better access to foreign workers to meet labor shortages. Many local farmers rely on seasonal workers from Mexico to help them harvest what can't be picked by machines. 

While the unseasonal weather is allowing local farmers to start plowing fields in February, the American Farm Bureau is lobbying for better access to foreign labor this summer for agriculture.

The future of farming depends upon a program that allows Mexican seasonal workers to come here and return when the job is done, local farmers say.

"My livelihood is dependent on the program," said Jeremy East, who farms about 300 acres of vegetables in Weber and Davis counties. "It's important in the vegetable industry because there are no workers here that want to do it."

Jordan Riley – who runs the 200-acre Riley Farms, also known as Nielson's, in Brigham City – said he wouldn't know how to fill the void without the skilled foreign workers he employs.

Riley said he hires four men from Mexico each year to help him raise peaches, cherries, apples, apricots, and plums.

"It may be only four guys but it made a difference to me," Riley said. "If we had to pick from dawn to dusk, I had four guys who were ready and willing to do the work."

While immigration issues already are at the forefront in the United States, Paul Schlegel said this year's Congress may have an opportunity needed for 20 years to improve the program that allows farmers to bring foreign seasonal workers.

Mr. Schlegel, deputy executive director of public policy with the American Farm Bureau, said the program that allows temporary visas for seasonal agricultural work "historically has been cumbersome and difficult."

Attached to legislation addressing DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), an agriculture guest worker act addresses the needs of farmers who are unable to find local workers to fill jobs requiring long hours of skilled labor.

Proposed by Congressman Bob Goodlatte (R) of Virginia, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, House Resolution 4760, called the Securing America's Future Act of 2018, has a provision to reform the agricultural guest worker program.

Currently, the H-2A law only allows foreign agricultural workers for seasonal jobs and offers no help for dairies and other year-round farming operations.

Because of much government red tape, the process outlined in the law also delays workers by an average of 22 days in arriving at their American farming destination, said Matt Hargreaves, vice president of communications with the Utah Farm Bureau.

Delays in the process of getting workers often have large consequences for farmers, he said.

"Crops need to be harvested," Mr. Hargreaves said. "That needs to happen right away."

While locally, problems with the process so far have not cost farmers the same sizable losses reported elsewhere, the potential is there.

The American Farm Bureau last fall created a video about a farmer who lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in expected revenue when he was forced to plow under acres of ripe vegetables harvest because he had no workers to pick the harvest.

Local farmers quoted monetary figures in the billions for crops left unharvested in American fields last year because of labor shortages.

According to the Utah Farm Bureau's "Issues to Watch for 2018," immigration reform is a central focus.

The list encourages Congress to pass responsible immigration reform that addresses agriculture's current experienced workforce and creates a new flexible guest worker program.

"Instability in the agricultural workforce places our food supply at risk," states the list. "Increasing immigration enforcement without also reforming our worker visa program will cost America $60 billion in agricultural production."

The list states that farmers and ranchers need a reliable, skilled workforce. "Farm work is challenging, often seasonal, and transitory, and it's not easy to find American workers to take on these jobs," according to the list.

The list states that farm labor can't all be replaced by machines. "There are certain farm jobs, like tending livestock and pruning or picking fresh produce, which require a human touch," according to the list. "Where American workers are unwilling or unavailable, workers from other countries have stepped in."

Schlegel said getting the legislation passed will take some work.

"This past week in the House, representatives were asking members where they stand on the bill," Schlegel said. "There is not enough support today to pass the House. That's not a big surprise."

Listening sessions to garner support would continue, Schlegel said.

While suggested changes in the bill appear to be positive, local farmers still worry that more problems could be created in the process, further limiting their chances at efficiently hiring foreign labor.

East said if he can't use the H-2A to hire foreign workers, he'll have to change his vegetable operation completely around and plant sweet corn, green beans, or hay, crops that can be harvested using automated systems.

Riley said switching his operation would not be feasible within a few years.

"With fruit trees, you are at least five years invested in them before you start to get a crop," he said.

Kenny McFarland, who farms vegetables on 250 acres in Weber County, said the H-2A law already provides assurances that no local jobs are lost in the process of hiring foreigners for the jobs.

In four years of running ads for local workers to do what his foreign workers do, he said he didn't get one response from someone wanting the work.

"We got so desperate quite a few times that we would go to the shelter to get people and it would be different people every day," Mr. McFarland said. "It's a difficult way to run a business because you would be retraining people every day."

But through the H-2A program, McFarland said he gets "amazing people" from Mexico to help him on his farm. "They do an amazing job," he said. "They are clean cut. They want to work."

McFarland said locals who have helped in his operation in the past have been drawn away to food service and construction jobs.

Should year-round farming provisions stay in the proposed legislation through its becoming law, West Weber dairyman Ron Gibson said he'll be greatly relieved.

"We can't even use the guest worker programs for a dairy because it is year-round," Mr. Gibson said. "Last year, we had a lot of trouble getting our workers here through the Department of Labor."

With low unemployment rates in Utah, Gibson said it's doubly hard for him to find workers.

"It's just tough for us to find people that live here in our community now," Gibson said. "It's against the law for us to bring foreign workers in."

This story was reported by The Associate Press with information from The Standard-Examiner.

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