Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Claudia Larson is enmeshed in Capitol Hill discussion on agricultural labor, an often thankless task. Immigration, the broader issue to which farm workforce issues are often attached, may be the most difficult issue in Washington. The last major legislation to pass Congress did so in 1986. The emotional nature of the debate repeatedly has worked against solutions, but hope remains. Today, Larson, Senior Director of Government Relations For the National Milk Producers Federation is discussing the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, a bipartisan piece of legislation that’s already passed the House of Representatives once in 2019 and could do so again, which would increase the potential for the Senate and thus all of Congress to get something done.
Claudia, thank you for joining us today.
Claudia Larson, NMPF: Great. Thank you for having me, Alan.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Now what makes this time different Claudia, given how many times we’ve seen immigration reform efforts come and go?
Claudia Larson, NMPF: This time we are facing a couple of different circumstances as compared to 2019 when the bill was originally introduced. First, we are in the middle of COVID and we have seen COVID actually exacerbate the labor crisis that agriculture was already facing. We are seeing fewer domestic workers available to be referred to our farms. So actually the labor crisis has been intensified under the COVID, a reality that all of us have been trying to navigate through. So it’s especially significant now because there does seem to be an increased sense of urgency and need to address the crisis on American farms.
What’s also a little bit different this go around than in 2019 is there is a general sense of an appetite for immigration reform more broadly. We’ve seen Biden put forward his proposal. We’ve seen both the Senate and the House take up immigration reform as something that they want addressed in a serious and meaningful way. So there is again, a general appetite for immigration reform more broadly. Different groups are more interested in reforming different parts of the immigration system, but addressing immigration reform is again consistently seemingly there is room and space for something real to happen this Congress. Ag labor reform as passed in the House in 2019 in the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, it was a bi-partisan process and there was bipartisan support for it.
So this go around against the backdrop of an appetite for immigration reform more broadly we think that a bipartisan immigration bill, which is what Farm Workforce Modernization Act is, does have the potential to be picked up and included in the broader immigration reform discussions. That general broader appetite for immigration reform wasn’t as sort of pervasive in 2019 as it is now. So we have, again, the urgency and the need for ag labor reform now more than ever, because of the COVID reality that we are all again trying to operate through right now. And we have this potential for a bipartisan ag labor reform bill to move through the House, make it over to the Senate, and really seize this window of opportunity that is being presented in the current reality of a broader appetite for immigration reform.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Walk us through the legislation. How does it benefit dairy?
Claudia Larson, NMPF: Farm Workforce Modernization has three general titles. Title 1 addresses our current workforce. Title two addresses reforms to the ag labor visa, the H-2A Visa. And then part three is mandatory E-Verify for all of agriculture.
Dairies general needs within the ag labor space are protection for our current workers and their families, some sort of legal status there to protect our current workers. And then also we need access to a workable guest worker program. This bill in title one addresses our current workers and their families in a way that provides, again, an earned legal status for those who have worked in agriculture and who continue to work in agriculture. Title 2, the H-2A Visa reforms, address dairies’ needs to have meaningful access to an ag labor, a guest worker program that is extended to dairy in Title 2. Given that, again dairies two general needs are addressed in Farm Workforce Modernization in a way that would be workable for dairy.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Now this hasn’t been universally supported in the agriculture community. So what is the reasoning behind NMPF support for this legislation?
Claudia Larson, NMPF: This does address dairies two broad in general needs. It is not a perfect bill. No piece of legislation is going to be perfect, but by addressing the needs in a way that would be workable for dairy, it is a vehicle that we feel like we can support in moving it forward through the process so that additional improvements can be made as we move forward. If the bill sits here and is stagnant and does not move, we lose the opportunity to continue to work in the space in a meaningful way.
And again, we have a window now to move something and we want to seize that. So supporting the bill is supporting continued real discussions on finding an actual solution here. And National Milk feels that the only way to continue these discussions in a way that may actually lead to something real is to move this bill through the House with as much bipartisan support as possible so we can continue our discussions in the Senate. It’s signaling to the Senate that this can be done in a bipartisan way, and it should be included in any broader immigration reforms that pass.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Tell us a little bit, Claudia, about some of NMPF’s recent efforts on this legislation.
Claudia Larson, NMPF: Most recently, we have been working with our champions in the House. So Ms. Lofgren, who’s re-introducing the bill and Mr. Dan Newhouse from Washington State, who’s her co-lead on this, to build as much bipartisan support for this bill as possible. Again, wanting to move it through the House, demonstrating to the Senate that this is a serious issue that can be done in a bipartisan way.
So we’ve been working to build bipartisan support for moving that bill as a process [inaudible 00:06:01]. We’ve been working individually, also partnering with the Agriculture Workforce Coalition, which is a broader agricultural coalition that we are a part of to address this labor crisis on farms across America, and more specifically to National Milk. We have also launched a call to action campaign that allows people who are passionate about this to voice their concerns and tell their stories to their members of Congress, urging them to support the movement of this bill and to address dairy farmers, agriculture, labor needs more broadly.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: There’s a Groundhog Day aspect to what’s going on here. You and I both remember March of 2020, when NMPF did a member fly-in supporting this legislation on Capitol Hill. We had dairy farmers that were coming to their lawmakers and talking about urgency in the Senate, and that was literally, literally the week everything shut down.
Claudia Larson, NMPF: Yes, there is a bit of a sense of Groundhog Day in 2021 given we again are moving Farm Workforce Modernization Act through the House, we are again building bipartisan support for that, we did that in 2019, and then we hosted that fly-in. There was a sense during that fly-in … I was with our farmers in that fly-in. I was on the Hill for that fly-in helping them advocate for ag labor reform. And there was a sense there in those meetings, hey, the House did this in a bipartisan way. Now it’s the Senate’s turn to do something. And there was a sense in a lot of those meetings that the Senate would move that. And then yes, COVID hit. All non-pandemic related legislation kind of was put to the side, understandably so.
But we are starting to come out of COVID. We are having conversations with key leaders in the Senate who are pulling together ideas, waiting for Farm Workforce Modernization to pass so that they can continue these conversations on the Senate side. There is a bit of a Groundhog Day here. I think the difference is that we are going to ride the momentum of Farm Workforce Modernization through 2021, work with these leaders in the Senate to make improvements in the ag labor reform space more broadly. I think that this go round the momentum will not, fingers crossed, [inaudible 00:08:22] shortened by pandemic, because we’re actually coming out of the pandemic right now.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: If you’re someone who wants to do something on this issue and make a difference for dairy, what can you do?
Claudia Larson, NMPF: National Milk has on its website the tool called our Advocacy Alert, where you can go online, enter your information, it will identify your member of Congress and it will help connect you to your member of Congress so you can tell your story and be an advocate on behalf of ag labor reform. Right now, National Milk actually has this highlighted on its website. It is a hot issue right now. If you just go online to nmpf.org, there’s a red bar at the top that is highlighting this issue that will take you to the action page, where you can read more about how to contact your member of Congress. You can use the tools right there on the page that will connect you directly to the office.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Thank you for that information, Claudia. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Claudia Larson, NMPF: Yes, I think I’d just really like to highlight the real window of opportunity we have here in the next couple of months to move ag labor reform through the House and then through the Senate. This window of opportunity, I think if we don’t seize it, we’re not entirely sure when it will open again. And so I would just really like to stress that if people want to become involved, your voice will have an impact with your members of Congress. And I think that now would be the time to do it to really seize this window while it’s open.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: So act now. We’ve been speaking with Claudia Larson. She’s the Senior Director of Government Relations for the National Milk Producers Federation. Claudia, thank you for your time today.
Claudia Larson, NMPF: Great. Thank you for having me.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: And that’s it for today’s podcast. Be sure to go to NMPF’s homepage and click on that red bar for Our Advocacy Alerts. You can speak out on agricultural labor and other issues of importance to the dairy community. Just go to the homepage and click on the bar at nmpf.org. You can also find this podcast online at nmpf.org and subscribe to it on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, SoundCloud, iTunes, and Google Play, all under the podcast name Dairy Defined. Thank you for joining us.