Farmers and members of the House called on the Senate Wednesday to act swiftly on legislation addressing the farm labor crisis.
“It is now or never when it comes to passing an ag labor reform bill,” National Council of Farmer Cooperatives President and CEO Chuck Conner said at a Capitol Hill press conference organized by the American Business Immigration Coalition.
“Farmers and their co-ops face increasing difficulty in filling thousands of on-farm jobs across the country,” Conner said. “They know that if this effort fails over the next couple of months, it will be likely many, many years before the labor crisis is addressed.”
The House passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act in March 2021. But so far, there has been no action in the Senate. The congressional lame-duck session may have as few as two weeks of legislative days remaining this month and next.
“I'm here because Senator [Mike] Crapo, my senator in Idaho, promised to file this bill after the elections,” said Shay Myers, owner of Owyhee Produce in Idaho. “The crazies lost. He has his place secure. Where's the bill?”
“I'm tired of excuses. We've had excuses for 36 years,” Myers said.
Speaker after speaker relayed statistics demonstrating the seriousness of the labor shortage in American agriculture. Myers said Owyhee had to destroy 130,000 pounds of asparagus because it lacked the workers to get the vegetables out of the ground, and more than one speaker warned that USDA has said the U.S. is in danger of being a net importer of food.
“I speak with family farmers who tell me that they had to leave apples on the tree to rot because they couldn't get workers to harvest,” said Jim Bair, president and CEO of the U.S. Apple Association. “That's offensive to me.”
Other groups represented at the event included AmericanHort, whose members include nurseries; the Idaho Dairymen’s Association; and the California Farm Bureau Federation. Lawmakers included Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., and Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif.
“We can no longer wait,” said Steve Obert, executive director of Indiana Dairy Producers. “If the Senate and Congress don't fix this, dairy farms in Indiana, Wisconsin and Idaho and across the country will have to close.”
Noting that he himself is a Republican, Obert said his message to Crapo is, “You have won your election and you won big. You don't have to worry about running for another six years.”
“Dairy supported you. We need you to support us. Now file that damn bill!”
Crapo, an Idaho Republican, and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., have been working on a bill but have yet to introduce anything. Bennet’s office told Agri-Pulse Wednesday that the two “are continuing to work toward introducing a Senate companion to the House-passed Farm Workforce Modernization Act.”
A Crapo spokesperson said, “We have no updates to provide with regard to timing. Negotiations are still ongoing.”
Despite support from a broad range of ag groups, including fruit and vegetable growers and farmworkers, the legislation is nevertheless a “heavy lift” in the Senate, Conner said following the event. He said supporters don’t expect the Senate to pass an identical bill, but would like to see something introduced so negotiations can take place on a workable piece of legislation.
Supporters of the FWMA point to provisions that would set up a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers and allow up to 20,000 year-round H-2A workers. H-2A workers also would be covered by the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act and be allowed to sue their employers to enforce their job terms.
The American Farm Bureau Federation, however, has opposed the FWMA, worried it will lead to unsustainable wage increases and open the door to lawsuits by H-2A workers.
Some GOP lawmakers have criticized the bill for providing a path to legal status for illegal immigrants working in agriculture.
On the sidelines of the event today, Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., said the FWMA is not “giving anything away” as far as the legalization issue.
“It's an earned legal status for some of the hardest working people that put food on America's dinner table every night,” Costa said. “But some of the members in the Senate have been politically scared to cast a vote,” afraid they will “be accused of somehow granting amnesty.
“Seventy-five percent of the agricultural workforce in California is undocumented,” Costa said. “Therefore, we've got to fix this problem.”
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