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Frank Gasperini

Frank Gasperini

Who would guess that, with unemployment at or just below double digits for three years, basic industries such as agriculture, food processing, restaurants, and others would experience labor shortages? Who would guess that, at the same time as agriculture—one of the few bright spots in the U.S. economy— is experiencing labor shortages, state and federal election candidates would promise to deport our existing workers, and regulators would continue to ramp up enforcement!

Farm labor shortages were reported nationwide in 2011. Some states, such as Georgia and Alabama, passed strict new laws impacting labor-intensive agriculture. Georgia’s law is said to have caused nearly $200 million in losses of labor-intensive crops that rotted in the fields. Alabama’s losses are not fully documented, but farmers in both states are already planning major shifts from food crops to mechanized row crops in 2012. Estimates for California and other western states show 8 to 12 percent worker shortages at harvest, with the ­Washington State apple harvest receiving the most press.

These are not overnight developments, nor will they be fixed with quick and simple solutions. Some predicted that the most recent election in Congress would provide solutions. It did not. In fact, policies since that election may have pushed agriculture closer to the precipice. Some predict solutions through federal administration change in 2012, which is possible, but unlikely. Others suggest states should take the lead. This has not worked out well in Georgia, Alabama, or Arizona. Still others suggest simple tweaks to existing temporary visa programs, but the overlapping, confusing  bureaucracies of these programs are self-limiting, and none of the current legislative proposals offer workable solutions to retain our current experienced work force.

In addition to the political hurdles, we see near-zero net migration from Mexico because of lower Mexican unemployment rates and other demographic factors. Mexico, our long-term largest agricultural labor supplier, may not provide the same numbers of workers in the future. We will increasingly compete with Europe, China, and Central America for foreign workers.

For 2012 and the next several years, we must focus on both federal and state legislative and regulatory processes in a more unified fashion than agriculture has historically been comfortable with. The efforts of a broad, relatively informal coalition of agricultural people and groups from all around the country appear to have had the remarkable effect of delaying what many felt was the inevitable passage this summer of mandatory E-Verification without including accommodations for agricultural labor at the federal level. Because of this delay we have the advantage of documenting the micro-effect of this legislation in Georgia and Alabama, and can demonstrate the costs and ripple effect on America’s domestic food production both present and future. This information will be extremely useful for educating and lobbying state and federal officials, and candidates, and working to assure policies that favor continuation of a domestic food supply and significant exports.

No clear congressional champion, with the necessary committee assignments and majority party status, has emerged for labor-intensive agriculture in this Congress. Many of those who best understand and support the unique needs of labor-intensive agriculture are in the Senate. Several House members have proposed partial solutions, but none, at this writing, are broad enough to offer general relief to the national agricultural labor shortage, and none yet address the issue of how to legally retain our current experienced and willing workers. We need clear champions to step out on the majority side, but that is unlikely before the November 2012 elections.

There is no reason to believe we can achieve real improvements to federal or state legislation or regulatory policy during the 2012 presidential election year that would result in better national labor availability than in 2011. What we can do is continue to work together to prevent things from getting even worse, and we must work together to make the most of the labor supplies we will have.

At the state level, all growers and groups must continue to work with legislators and regulators to stop self-wounding legislation and regulation as experienced in Alabama and Georgia. Although state-based guest-worker programs and other individual state solutions sound attractive, the federal government will preempt states, so our efforts are better spent preventing bad state legislation and working toward positive federal immigration and guest-worker reform efforts. There are opportunities for small successes at the state level with work-release and inmate programs, city-to-farm bussing options, and other creative approaches to increase the labor pool in the states, but none of these can provide sufficient numbers of productive workers to make more than minor positive impacts.

In the end, agriculture requires large numbers of willing, able, experienced farmworkers on a seasonal basis and the largest number of these must continue to be foreign workers. Policy regulating foreign workers, whether permanent residents or guest-workers, must be federal policy.

Although neither bold federal legislative solutions, nor real relief from unworkable federal regulations and enforcement are probable in 2012, it is important that all growers and groups continue to work with elected officials at all levels and to be prepared to fly in to Washington, D.C., when needed. It is time to hold the feet of our elected officials to the fire to tell them to support policies that will assure the continued ability of American food producers to produce domestically and to insist that they take positive actions now. Your congressional delegation was elected to represent you, not just their own reelection campaign. We must work together to push the congressional majority and/or the administration to take action to assure the future of domestic labor-intensive agriculture now, and to push especially hard immediately after the 2012 elections conclude.