Immigration proposal fails to offer ag worker solution

May 16, 2019

Published by Feedstuffs, May 16, 2019 by Jacqui Fatka

Industry not hopeful about comprehensive immigration proposal to address shrinking ag workforce.

While speaking from the Rose Garden Thursday afternoon, President Donald Trump laid out details of an immigration proposal that puts greater emphasis on granting green cards to more highly skilled workers. However, it fails to address the nearly 11 million people currently in the country illegally, nor does it offer the needed support for obtaining legal agricultural workers.

Trump’s proposal moves away from the annual green card working visas currently offered to predominantly low-wage and low-skilled workers and instead focuses on selecting through a skill- or merit-based system, similar to how Canada, Australia and New Zealand prioritize higher-skilled immigrants.

Chuck Conner, president and chief executive officerof the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, said while the package the President announced on Thursday does not contain provisions for agriculture, at a briefing by the White House on Wednesday, Trump did note the agriculture industry's desire to work with the Administration to ensure that the labor needs of America’s farmers are being discussed as part of a broader dialogue.

“We continue to emphasize that much of agriculture is facing nothing short of a full-blown labor crisis today and that the conditions are not sustainable for long,” Conner said in a statement to Feedstuffs.

United Egg Producers (UEP) CEO and president Chad Gregory, although an optimistic person by nature, said after leading 150 farmers in UEP’s annual legislative visit May 15-16, he is, unfortunately, not feeling very optimistic that a positive solution will be found for agricultural workers in the immigration debate.

After discussions on Capitol Hill, he said there is “zero optimism” that something will get done on creating a year-round guest worker program. “The vision between Democrats and Republicans continues to get wider and wider each year,” Gregory noted. “It’s so strange that, in the last several years, we had started to see some progress made in the way people thought, but what we’ve heard in the last 24 hours is the throwing up of hands and going back to elementary basic solutions that are impossible to implement.”

He added that level-minded conversations are not happening. Instead, members of Congress have been taking control of the conversation and have become so opinionated that they’re not looking for middle ground.

Paul Kalmbach, president of Kalmbach Feeds, said the mood in Washington, D.C., is that there is recognition that a problem exists when it comes to the current immigration system, but there is no appetite for finding solutions. He said a simple amnesty program won’t work; the agriculture industry instead would like to see a long-term visa program that's not just for seasonal workers.

Based on his conversations during the UEP-arranged meetings with legislators from Ohio and Pennsylvania, Kalmbach said, “Democrats are focused primarily on amnesty." However, the average American believes in following the law of the land, which has created the emotional bias that exists today in the immigration discussion. “One side wants to follow the laws; the other side wants to create new ones,” he explained.

UEP’s request was for Congress to create a more workable year-round guest worker program for egg farms and other animal agriculture industries. UEP also seeks a visa program that is market based and includes the flexibility to help producers with year-round needs. The current H2-A program applies only to seasonal workers, and many in the agriculture industry seek additional flexibility to have access to these workers for use on farms and slaughterhouses due to the current lack of workers.

National estimates put the agricultural workforce at 2.5 million hired employees. Experts calculate that 50-70% of the hired workers are not authorized to work in the U.S.

In a survey released earlier this year by the California Farm Bureau Federation, 56% of participating farmers reported that they were unable to hire all the employees they needed for production of their main crop at some point during the past five years. An estimated 86% of farmers responding to the survey said they had raised wages in efforts to hire enough people. Of those farmers reporting employee shortages, the survey indicated worsening problems in the past two years, with 70% or more saying they had more trouble hiring employees in 2017 and 2018.

Kalmbach, who oversees companies that produce pork, eggs and feed through Kalmbach Poultry and Kalmbach Pork Finishing, said these industries all say they would hire 10% more workers if they could. “We’re 10% short on people, raised starting wages 15% in the last two years and overall the quality of people we’re getting it just not the same as it was 10 years ago,” he said, noting that there Is 150% turnover in the agricultural workforce.