The Senate Judiciary Committee passed its version of Immigration Reform late last night. American Farm Bureau told AgDay while several amendments were passed; the 844-page bill remains largely untouched.
Even though the bill still has battles ahead, making it out of Committee signifies progress for California farmers desperate for workers. Asparagus grower Barb Cecchini fears labor shortages could ultimately change the landscapes of California agriculture today.
"Labor ranks as my problem as number one, two and three," she says. "I believe I’m probably going to be getting out of the industry in the next five years. I don't have any plans to plant new asparagus, and you have to have new asparagus coming in all the time."
California Farm Bureau says she’s not alone. Last year, 61 percent of surveyed growers in the state reported labor shortages.
A case study published jointly with Partnership for a New American Economy and the Center for Global Development shows the impact lack of labor is having on North Carolina farmers, as well.
The study concluded:
- The number of guest worker visas should remain uncapped and not depend on local or national unemployment rates.
- In 2011, out of 6,500 available farm jobs available in the state, only 268 out of the 500,000 unemployed North Carolina residents applied for these jobs.
- Of those applicants, more than 90% were hired, and only 7% remained at the end of the season.
Meanwhile, California Farm Bureau says with not enough workers, farmers are forced to make a difficult decision.
"Do I let acres go fallow, do I sell my land, do I go into other crops," says Rayne Pegg, Manager of Federal Policy for California Farm Bureau. "And it’s really a question of who can survive under that model."
Lodi, California grape grower Wendy Moore has similar concerns.
"What I want, as an individual farmer, is I want to know there is a skilled workforce that is available, at the time the work needs to be done."
Last year, Moore says that didn’t happen. And there are fears shortages could be worse this fall.
"We extended our harvest about three days, which doesn't seem like much, but when you have a perishable product, the quality of that product deteriorates as time goes on," says Moore.
She says the current H-2A Visa program doesn’t work, as it’s not flexible enough to meet her needs. In fact, a survey shows only 2 percent of farmers actually the current program today. That’s why she’s extremely pleased the new piece of legislation does away with a program she views as broken.
"It has become increasingly difficult, and the old immigration that allowed for guest worker programs worked very, very well," says Moore. "So, a reestablishment of something along those lines would be very helpful."
As it sits today, the Senate version of Immigration Reform replaces the H-2A Visas program with a Nonimmigrant Agricultural Visa and Blue Card program.
While the bill on the table is a compromise, Mar Grossman with United Farm Workers of America says in an ideal world, there are still pieces each side would like to see changed.
"I think the 50 year old American law that gives first choice to domestic workers and makes sure foreign workers do not undercut the pay of domestic workers, those are critical for us," says Grossman.
Grossman says UFW also wanted higher wages for farm workers. The California farmers AgDay talked to say while they can’t speak for all employers, they currently pay above minimum wage for the labor intensive jobs. Wendy Moore says she pays part-time employees $1.50 above minimum wage. Full-time employees receive full health care benefits.
Cecchini says they also pay their employees well above minimum wage, and says they can’t afford to pay more without driving up prices at the store.
"How much is somebody going to pay for a pound of asparagus," Cecchini asks. "We have found the person from town won't stay with us. They may come out and try it for a day usually they don't make it
Both women say that’s why a stable flow of workers into the country is imperative to American agriculture.
"I personally do not believe that these are a drain on the American economy," Moore says. "I do not believe coming across in order to access welfare benefits. I believe they are coming here to work and to provide a service that we as Americans need."
Many legislators supportive of the Immigration Reform measure say it’s designed to boost the economy, not drain it. Moore hopes that support is enough and an Immigration Reform bill will be passed this year. After all, she says without it, California agriculture is at stake, and so are consumers.
"It could impact them with price, with availability, of the diversity of crops, and also where their sourcing," says Pegg
She fears other countries, like Mexico and China, will be able to produce the fresh products cheaper, meaning "Made in the USA" could become a lost trademark.