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 ‘Cliffhangers’ Need Resolution

Cliffhangers are great in movies, but they’re frustrating in public policy. Congress is entering its traditional August recess with a big not-yet-done list on topics ranging from infrastructure to immigration. For the sake of dairy farmers, we’d like to see faster movement.

But hope and hard work are dairy strengths, and we at NMPF continue our efforts to make sure that at least some of these cliffhangers resolve quickly and positively. Each gain, big and small, improves livelihoods. Here are a few cliffhangers awaiting resolution as lawmakers leave Washington and head to their districts to reconnect at county fairs and town halls. (Feel free to tell them NMPF says hello.)

  • USDA’s Dairy Donation Program. This initiative provides compensation for dairy-product donations, with support retroactive to last Dec. 27. The $400 million program, part of a COVID relief package Congress approved that month, is largely ready to go, thanks to USDA’s diligence, but it’s awaiting signoff from the White House Office of Management and Budget. Final details are expected to be worked out soon, encouraging dairy community efforts to aid needy families through food banks and other distributors.
  • Direct Producer Support. USDA has indicated plans to offer details within the next few weeks on other COVID-related initiatives to provide direct relief to dairy producers. In response to NMPF entreaties, USDA is seeking to reimburse dairy producers for uncompensated losses they’ve suffered when traditional milk price relationships were turned upside down last year. Meanwhile, the Supplemental DMC program would allow producers whose annual production was below 5 million pounds in 2014, but has modestly increased, to receive corresponding payments. This not only aids small producers; it increases the amount of money available to dairy in the next farm bill. Finally, we’re seeking to correct a flaw in last year’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program to help producers who experienced serious losses due to the pandemic but saw their assistance hindered by CFAP payment caps. NMPF has spearheaded efforts to remedy this imbalance with USDA.
  • Programs that advance dairy’s Net Zero Initiative goals. As NMPF’s Senior Vice President for Government Affairs, Paul Bleiberg, noted in a recent NMPF podcast, Congress is making progress in several areas that will help dairy reach its ambitious goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The Growing Climate Solutions Act, which passed the U.S. Senate by a 92-8 vote in June, encourages better-functioning environmental markets, which will help farmers achieve the industry’s net zero goal. Meanwhile, an investment tax-credit bill for greenhouse-gas-reducing technologies is making headway on Capitol Hill, and Congress is considering enhancing conservation policy to encourage climate-friendly agricultural practices and markets that compensate farmers for being stewardship leaders.
  • Finally, addressing dairy’s ag-labor crisis. Perpetually among the heaviest lifts in Congress, agricultural labor reform has at least some momentum this year via the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives in March. Senate discussions remain behind-the-scenes, but we have positioned dairy prominently in this debate via the many opportunities we’ve had to spotlight dairy’s labor needs, ranging from a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on agricultural labor issues and public events with key federal officials to the inclusion of language expanding the current H-2A visa program to accommodate dairy in a recent appropriations bill. These are the types of smaller actions that lead to larger ones, and we will continue this drumbeat to prod Congress to get the job done.

This list, of course, isn’t comprehensive. Dairy’s activities in Washington range widely, from legislation on school milk and plant-based product labeling to forceful advocacy on trade. And other issues, especially those related to milk pricing, are sure to heat up in the months ahead, leaving no shortage of suspense in Washington.

But progress does occur, and we’re looking forward to seeing more progress soon. Washington may be taking a “break,” but we aren’t. And we look forward to helping to resolve at least a few “cliffhangers” in the weeks and months to come.

Dairy Pivotal to July Ag Labor Reform Progress

Ag labor reform activity heated up in July, with dairy at the heart of action crucial to advancing long-term goals of greater workforce stability.

In the House of Representatives, Congressmen Henry Cuellar (D-TX) and Dan Newhouse (R-WA) introduced an amendment to the FY 2022 appropriations bill funding the Department of Homeland Security that would allow dairy producers to access the H-2A agricultural guestworker program for the fiscal year. The amendment would remove the seasonality requirement for H-2A visas for the fiscal year and allow farmers working in year-round sectors to hire H-2A workers to supplement their domestic workforce during the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

Although the amendment was approved by the full House Appropriations Committee on July 13, that doesn’t make the much-needed reform real, as amendments to appropriations measures that focus on immigration reform typically are removed from final packages. Still, as explained by Claudia Larson, NMPF Senior Director of Government Relations, in a July 15 “Adams on Agriculture” podcast, the amendment’s positive effects go beyond the amendment itself, as it adds momentum to our wider effort bipartisan ag labor reform efforts.

On the Senate side, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing July 21 focusing on the importance of immigrant farmworkers, with testimony from USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack followed by farmers and farmworker organization representatives. Former dairy farmer Linnea Kooistra of Illinois was invited to testify by Committee Chair Richard Durbin (D-IL) on her more than 40 years of experience in the industry, sharing the urgency of dairy’s labor needs.

NMPF in a statement thanked the committee and Durbin for highlighting the importance of immigrant farmworkers to the nation’s food supply and rural communities and called on the Senate to craft its own ag labor reform measure, building on and improving upon the Farm Workforce Modernization Act that passed in the House in March.

Beyond Capitol Hill, Vilsack and Rep. Antonio Delgado (D-NY) hosted an ag roundtable in dairy-dense Cobleskill, New York on July 16, hearing from farmers and farmworkers on the unworkability of the current ag labor system, with dairy producers speaking to the special challenges the industry faces. NMPF president and CEO Jim Mulhern commended USDA and Rep. Delgado for supporting ag labor reform and organizing the roundtable meeting, noting that conversations need “to turn into action in congressional corridors so that farmers and farmworkers can benefit from a workable labor system.”

NMPF will continue its work building bipartisan support for ag workforce reform legislation that will address dairy’s workforce challenges, including protecting current workers and providing dairy meaningful access to a guestworker program that allows producers to remain competitive.

NMPF Statement on Senate Judiciary Hearing on Essential Immigrant Farmworkers

From NMPF President and CEO Jim Mulhern:

“NMPF thanks the Senate Judiciary Committee and its chairman, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) for holding today’s hearing highlighting the importance of immigrant farmworkers to our nation’s food supply and rural communities. We are also grateful to Linnea Kooistra, formerly an Illinois dairy farmer for over 40 years, for testifying at the hearing and giving voice to this critical issue for dairy.

“Immigrant employees are vital to the dairy industry, with an estimated 79% of the U.S. milk supply produced on farms that employ immigrant workers. Dairy farmers know firsthand of dedicated and skilled teams that are led by and include immigrants; most producers also can speak to the challenges farms and rural communities face due to uncertainty surrounding the farm workforce.

“That’s why NMPF has been a leader in agricultural workforce reform efforts that address two areas of reform that are essential to solve America’s ag labor crisis. First: We must provide an earned legal protection for our current workers and their families. Second: We must reform the agricultural guestworker visa program so dairy and other year-round industries can use it to supplement the domestic workforce when needed.

“Dairy farmers currently cannot use the H-2A guestworker program because they produce milk year-round. Providing an earned legal protection for current workers is crucial, but it narrowly addresses only one aspect of the crisis. We must also reform the ag labor system so dairy farmers can hire legal guestworkers and do not remain trapped in a still-broken ag labor system moving forward. Both features must be present in any real solution.

“NMPF again thanks the Senate Judiciary Committee for today’s hearing and urges the Senate to seize the present opportunity to craft its own ag workforce reform bill that both provides legal protections to our current workers and restructures H-2A. Do not miss this chance for a real solution that helps farmers and farmworkers and supports them as they continue their crucial work of feeding our nation and the world.”

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 Statement on Appropriations Language Allowing Dairy Farmer Participation in H-2A Program

From NMPF President and CEO Jim Mulhern:

“NMPF thanks Reps. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) and Dan Newhouse (R-WA) for their tireless efforts on behalf of America’s dairy producers to include year-round employees on farms in the H-2A farm worker visa program. We urge Congress not to delay providing dairy farmers with access to the H-2A program during a time of critical labor needs.

“Dairy farmers largely have not been able to use H-2A visas because the current program is limited only to the temporary and seasonal labor needs of agricultural employers. The current H-2A program simply isn’t an option for a commodity that ‘harvests’ its product multiple times a day, every day.

“The Cuellar-Newhouse bipartisan amendment to this year’s Homeland Security Appropriations bill would allow farm employers to use the H-2A visa program to hire foreign workers, regardless of whether those employees are engaged in temporary or seasonal work. Under this amendment, dairy farmers and other year-round producers could use the H-2A program to supplement their domestic workforce.

“Beyond just providing dairy temporary access to the H-2A program, the measure is important because we must continue to build momentum for ag labor reform as we await a Senate measure that carries forward and improves upon the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which the House approved in a bipartisan vote in March.

“Recent history shows bipartisan support for farm workforce legislation that addresses the needs of producers and farmworkers. It is critical that the government continues to build on these bipartisan efforts to create a system that provides secure, legal employment. We thank lawmakers for their efforts toward achieving this goal.”

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.