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The incredible shrinking labor pool?

Agriculture.com Staff 09/01/2009 @ 9:25am

Agriculture has always been a hands-on business. But it's become increasingly difficult for farmers to find a reliable source of domestic labor to get chores done. So they've turned to foreign workers.

In the wake of the tragic events on September 11, 2001, America tightened its borders and increased immigration enforcement. With nearly 12 million illegal immigrants living in the U.S., this was no small task. There was a major shakedown, and migrant workers -- legal and illegal -- were running scared.

“We are very dependent on guest laborers in agriculture,” says Gregg Hadley, University of Wisconsin ag economist. “However, fewer are immigrating to the U.S. because of the increased enforcement. Our economy is slowing, which means fewer people are willing to move to the U.S. because they're scared they may not find employment.”

As the migrant worker pool shrinks, farmers are back to square one. Most row-crop farmers have been untouched by the lack of labor since they've been able to alleviate the problem by adding or sharing equipment and resources.

Those in the livestock industry or fruit and vegetable production haven't been so fortunate, however.

Five farmers in the cover story (starting on page 44) share their solutions for offsetting this lack of labor problem. Although these producers have solved their workforce issues, it doesn't dismiss the fact that the immigration system is broken.

A recent report from the Council on Foreign Relations notes that our policies for attracting low-skilled workers isn't in line with the realities of supply and demand. It goes on to say the current H-2A program is underused by employers because it's costly and complex. H-2B for seasonal workers has a quota typically too low to meet demand. Add to that the fact that the quota for green cards for unskilled labor is a mere 10,000 a year, which doesn't reflect demand either. A recent report from the Council on Foreign Relations notes that our policies for attracting low-skilled workers isn't in line with the realities of supply and demand. It goes on to say the current H-2A program is underused by employers because it's costly and complex. H-2B for seasonal workers has a quota typically too low to meet demand. Add to that the fact that the quota for green cards for unskilled labor is a mere 10,000 a year, which doesn't reflect demand either.

“Even though there is essentially an unlimited supply of H-2A visas, it's only good for a year and can't be used for nonseasonal work, like on a dairy farm,” says Hadley.

Unlike some businesses, ag producers can't just shut down and start up again as new workers arrive. Labor shortages can result in devastating economic losses for farm families.

It's obvious the U.S. needs a new, comprehensive immigration policy. “We need to pay closer attention to immigration reform and the shortage of ag labor,” says Hadley. “There needs to be open, thoughtful discussions about the issue so we can form a plan that is meaningful, fair, implementable, and enforceable.”

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