Immigration policy falls short for Midwest agriculture, report says

By Spencer Chase

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Dec. 9, 2014 - Midwestern agricultural interests are being left out in the cold in the immigration debate, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs says in a new report.

The report, “Employing Agriculture: How the Midwest Farm and Food Sector Relies on Immigrant Labor,” details the unique aspects of Midwestern agriculture that are often ignored by lawmakers and others while the needs of the more populated coasts get more attention. The report said action is needed to keep up with a changing landscape in many industries, including agriculture.

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“As the demand for food rises along with increased populations, production needs to rise as well to meet the needs and keep prices affordable,” according to the 14-page report. “The agriculture sector is already hurting from the lack of immigration reforms and will continue to be affected by increased enforcement-already at record levels under the Obama administration-without Congress passing new legislation to address the inconsistencies and flaws of the system.”

The report said the immigration needs for the Midwest are unique to the region. The coastal agriculture's immigration needs are typically seasonal and driven by the harvest of local specialty crops such as Florida oranges or California strawberries. In contrast, the Midwest relies on immigrant labor on a year-round basis. The report said much of the labor force in the Midwest works with labor-intensive dairy and other livestock production, and many of the current federal immigration programs are seasonal.

“Statistics illustrate a reality that local farmers have known for decades: our nation's immigration policies are failing to serve the needs of our agriculture sector, and those shortcomings are especially acute in the Midwest, a region with distinct needs for year-round versus seasonal immigrant labor,” the report said. It noted that about one in five Midwestern farms use hired labor, a figure that is very close to the national average.

The report also notes the high stakes Midwestern states - Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, and North and South Dakota - have in their respective agricultural industries. While farmers represent 1.7 percent of the Midwest's population, they are responsible for 6.6 percent of the region's economy, about twice the typical national share. The share of economic activity varies from state to state in the Midwest with South Dakota agriculture holding a 31.3 percent share of the state's economy and Ohio just 2.6 percent.

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Many native-born workers are not drawn to agriculture, the report said, because of more lucrative opportunities in similarly labor-intensive fields such as construction.

“Farms still face up to a 30 percent shortage in labor,” The report said, citing July 2014 estimates from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “U.S. farmers find it difficult to fill available farm labor jobs with native-born workers, even with the 9.7 million unemployed U.S. citizens over the age of 16 (3.2 million of whom are long-term unemployed).”

The report said even when agriculture jobs are available; many native-born workers simply don't apply. It cited a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story from January 2013 where a printing plant closed down, leaving “hundreds” out of work, and “only a couple of them” applied for work at a nearby dairy farm which is staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

The report also discusses shortcomings in the H-2A visa program, “the only legal avenue for migrants to work in the U.S. agriculture on a temporary basis.” Between fiscal years 1998 and 2013, visas issued through this program increased 335 percent, but that still accounts for no more than 10 percent of the agricultural workforce in the U.S., the report said. The program has many shortcomings for those in Midwest agriculture, none more pronounced than the fact that H-2A is a temporary visa program; employers seeking permanent help cannot apply. 


“Indeed, dairy farmers are actually ineligible to bring in foreign workers under the H-2A program for that very reason, even as farms that use immigrant labor supply more than three-fifths of the milk in the country, according to a 2009 Texas A&M University study,” the report said. Restrictions and “bureaucratic complexities” also can cause producers to miss planting or harvesting windows, making the program difficult to use even in the pursuit of seasonal workers.

In the report, Midwest farm group representatives are cited as saying they are worried about increased costs, declining economic activity, and lost market share if no meaningful action is taken on immigration. Statistics are cited that show consumption of fresh produce in the U.S. increased by 10.5 percent between 2000 and 2012, but U.S. production only rose 1.4 percent in that same period. “As a result,” the report said, “imports of fresh fruits and vegetables have increased by 38 percent over that period, with imports in several categories (such as lettuce, avocados, berries, and cherries) spiking well over 100 percent.”

A potential remedy will likely take Congressional action, the report said. It noted that President Obama's recent executive action will protect about 5 million immigrants from deportation, but only about 250,000 farm workers will be affected. The report agrees Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack who last week said “Congress needs to act.” It encourages clearing red tape to smooth the application process and eliminate “arbitrary caps or quotas,”

“With geographic, bureaucratic, and visa restrictions hindering access to this workforce, reform is critical for the continued health of agriculture in the Midwest
 and across the country,” the report concluded. “Members of Congress from the Midwest will need to weigh in on behalf of their farm constituents to ensure that the unique aspects of their farm labor requirements are met.”

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