Flurry of Ag Labor Reform Work Closes Out Congress

NMPF joined with other agricultural organizations and farmworker groups in one final concerted effort in December to enact agricultural labor reform by the end of 2022, an effort that ultimately stalled but may create a framework for future progress.

Since March 2021, Senators Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Mike Crapo (R-ID) had been working to negotiate a bipartisan agreement for a Senate ag labor reform bill that would build upon and improve the House-passed Farm Workforce Modernization Act. The two Senators had made progress toward a bipartisan compromise bill by December – an effort supported in a letter signed by more than 350 ag organizations sent Dec. 6 – but were unable to resolve all issues needed to introduce a bipartisan measure.

From those discussions, Senator Bennet used the points of agreement he had come to with Senator Crapo as the starting point for a Bennet-only ag labor reform bill. That bill, the Affordable and Secure Food Act, gained NMPF’s support by addressing dairy’s two overarching workforce needs – providing protection for current workers and their families, and providing dairy access to the H-2A program – in spite of other weaknesses in the bill, such as its cap on the number of year-round worker visas.

NMPF participated in Sen. Bennet’s press conference announcing the bill’s introduction Dec. 15, and NMPF’s Claudia Larson joined a panel discussion broadcast by Agri-Pulse which focused on ag labor reform and the Affordable and Secure Food Act. In addition to NMPF-targeted outreach to numerous Senate Republican offices, NMPF also continued working with the Agricultural Workforce Coalition – an umbrella organization representing farm groups – to send a clear message to Senate leadership that ag-labor reform is urgent and necessary.

Those efforts fell short. Ultimately, Sen. Bennet’s measure was not included in the government spending bill to which it needed to be attached so it could receive a Congressional vote in 2022. However, the reform efforts and public pressure built in the 117th Congress have left a nationwide impression on the urgent need for ag labor reform. These efforts have laid an important foundation for future work in DC, and NMPF will continue leading the charge to ensure dairy’s needs are represented in any future reforms.

Dairy Farmers Spotlight Ag Labor Reform Needs in Roundtable with Vilsack, Delgado

Dairy farmers are urging the government to address dairy’s acute labor shortages — and the need for the U.S. Senate to craft a counterpart to the House-passed bipartisan Farm Workforce Modernization Act – in meetings today with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Rep. Antonio Delgado (D-NY), culminating in a roundtable discussion at SUNY-Cobleskill in Cobleskill, New York.

Vilsack and Delgado will talk with farmers and farmworkers to address the unworkability of current farm-labor policies. Dairy faces special challenges as a year-round, around-the-clock agricultural sector because the current rules of the H-2A guestworker visa program limits its use to only the temporary and seasonal labor needs of agricultural employers.

“Unfortunately, the Department of Labor hasn’t made available the current H-2A program for a commodity that ‘harvests’ its product multiple times a day, every day,” said Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation in a statement before the event. “We commend USDA and Rep. Delgado for supporting ag labor reform legislation and organizing this important discussion.”

NMPF supports the Farm Workforce Modernization Act as a vehicle for additional policy improvements and to prod Senate legislation that can be reconciled into a final bill that can pass both houses of Congress. Delgado was an early cosponsor of the legislation, which passed the House of Representatives by a solid bipartisan margin in 2019 and again in March. To build momentum for a solution, Vilsack hosted a bipartisan roundtable last month with key Senate negotiators and agricultural stakeholders, including NMPF.

“Without Senate action, the hard-won progress lawmakers have made on ag-labor issues won’t bring the solutions farmers need,” he said. “We need this conversation to turn into action in congressional corridors so that farmers and farmworkers can benefit from a workable labor system.”

NMPF Builds Momentum for Ag Labor Reform

As a leader in ag labor reform, NMPF has been working with members of Congress and others on a bipartisan effort to enact legislation this year addressing dairy’s workforce challenges.

After helping secure House passage of the bipartisan Farm Workforce Modernization Act in March, NMPF has shifted focus to improving the bill in the Senate, with the goal of ultimately advancing legislation to the President’s desk. NMPF also has been working to build support for ag labor reform more broadly throughout the Senate, looking to increase congressional urgency. NMPF took part in two key momentum-building efforts this past month.

NMPF first worked with colleagues in the Agriculture Workforce Coalition steering committee to bring together nearly 300 groups to call on Senate Leaders Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to take up ag labor reform in the Senate. The message noted how American agriculture’s workforce crisis has only intensified due to the COVID-19 pandemic, emphasizing the urgent need for Senate action. It also highlighted specific, longstanding problems with the H-2A agricultural guestworker visa program to be addressed in a Senate measure, including the need to grant dairy farmers and other year-round producers access to guestworkers. The coalition followed up its June 8 letter to leadership but sharing it with all Senate offices, helping to ensure agriculture’s dire need for ag labor reform is understood across the entire chamber.

NMPF, other agricultural organizations, and farmworker groups on June 16 met with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Senators Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Mike Crapo (R-ID) for an ag labor reform roundtable. During the forum, stakeholders underscored the need for Senate action on its answer to the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, and both senators reiterated their commitment to introduce a measure that builds and improves upon the House legislation. Vilsack also pledged to prioritize ag workforce reform within the Biden Administration.