In the world of agriculture there are plenty of hurdles that slow down the process of getting food from the farm to the table. In recent years, labor has come to the top of that list. 

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act was reintroduced to address this issue with support from many western U.S. Representatives and agriculture groups, including the U.S. Apple Association. 

“Ag labor, availability, and wages have become such a problem that growers are unsure if they’ll be able to stay in business for much longer,” said Jim Bair, U.S. Apple Association President and CEO. “Here is D.C. as the voice of the apple industry, we appreciate Dan Newhouse so much. He’s the national leader in working to fix these ag labor problems. Congressman Newhouse knows with the House and the Senate so evenly split; some compromise is going to be necessary to get this done.” 

What the Bill Addresses

Bair pointed out the major items this bill addresses. One of those is freezing current ag wages in the H-2A Visa Program and limit the raises to three and a quarter of a percent per year, a positive for growers in states where the federal wage rate has seen drastic increases. 

“For a grower who is going in to get an operating loan in the winter and your banker asks you, ‘What’s your number one costs?’ it’s labor, ‘What are you going to pay?’ well I don’t know. Who wants to loan money on those terms and who wants to go in and borrow money on those terms? That’s exactly where growers are today,” Bair said. 

The second item the bill looks at is providing a path for legal work status. 

“They would have to pay a fine to come in out of the shadows, at least we would know who the people are. They would be able to work in agriculture without fear of being deported and leaving their families here and that kind of thing,” Bair explains. “We think it would be a huge step forward but for anybody that thinks they have a better idea, we’re willing to listen, but for now we’re supporting the Farm Workforce Modernization Act.” 

Issue number three is the availability of the H-2A Visa Program to other segments of agriculture. By definition, the H-2A program is only for temporary workers and not year-round work, leaving out segments like the dairy industry that needs workers the entire year.

Working with other Ag Groups

Even though different agriculture industries are all in need of workers, Bair said it's important to work in coalition with other commodity groups that are labor dependent. 

“Row crops farms are highly mechanized and don’t have many labor needs. But for anybody in the PNW, it’s a whole different picture. Whether it’s specialty crops, fruits and vegetables, nuts, hops, and the livestock side of it too, and in our coalition it’s not just the Pacific Northwest it’s Florida, California, Arizona, Texas, Michigan, New York, all of the states where specialty commodities are principally growing, in this case, apples.” Bair stated, “None of us are big enough to get this done on our own so we band together and try to present a unified front. We aren’t giving up, it’s too important, it’s too critical.” 

Bair also said a big part of the story for the U.S. Apple Association is that the people who come to pick fruit in the Pacific Northwest are not the ones we see on TV sleeping on the streets in the South. Even though the association agrees with Congress that the border needs secured, but that doesn’t have to do with the people that pick are here to pick fruits and vegetables. 

“For the first time, in 2023 the U.S. will import more food than it produces,” Bair emphasized. “And that’s a shock to me and anybody else who has grown up around agriculture. A lot of that has to do with the fact that labor is so abundant and cheap in every other country, and it is not abundant and expensive here.” 

The U.S. Apple Association leader thanked the politicians leading the way on addressing the ag labor issues and said, with this legislation, “We’ve got a good shot.” 

Sources: U.S. Apple Association, PNW Ag Network 


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