The Farm Workforce Moment is Here. Let’s Take It
April 5, 2021
Farmers and their workforce have proven time and again in the past year that they can rise to substantial challenges. It’s time for Congress to do the same.
Dairy farmers and the employees who keep their farms running 24/7, 365 days a year saw major progress on agricultural labor reform last month when the House of Representatives again passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, the only piece of ag labor legislation to pass that chamber in the past 35 years.
This major milestone was achieved through what’s also become a rarity in Washington: a truly bipartisan vote. Thirty Republicans joined their Democratic colleagues in supporting the bill, which was led by Representatives Zoe Lofgren, D-CA, and Dan Newhouse, R-WA, and backed by a coalition spanning across agriculture that’s been willing to overcome differences to put us on a path toward a workable agricultural labor solution.
The legislation, most importantly, protects current workers and allows dairy farms to participate in the H-2A visa program that allows for a legal, temporary immigrant workforce, thereby securing the steady, adequately-sized pool of legal employees needed to support our industry. That would be, by any definition, a breakthrough. But House passage, significant as it is, is only one step in the journey, and there’s a big step ahead of us. It’s on to the Senate now, and we will need the same kind of bipartisan leadership in the Senate to move a bill that addresses issues of concern that will allow for another bipartisan bill there.
These efforts have been propelled by the obvious need for reform. All of us in agriculture know how essential our workforce is. This has been proven more than ever by the pandemic, which unfortunately delayed progress on reform even as it proved its necessity via the workers who have kept food supplies coming even as other parts of the retail chain experienced temporary disruptions. The agricultural workforce – made largely of immigrants – put food on the table; simply put, the production of food and fiber in this country just does not happen without a workforce that relies on immigrants.
It’s been a year now since we went into this pandemic, and food production has continued because of these ag workers. Most of the milk in this country comes from farms that employ immigrant labor. And we know that much of that workforce is undocumented. Those folks have worked very hard for very many years — and it’s time that we bring them out of the shadows and give them the legal recognition that they deserve. And that’s why fixing our broken ag labor system and making it work for the future is so critically important.
It’s so important, in fact, that to achieve it, we have to be wary of our own impulse to seek perfection in the legislation we support. Calls for a spirit of compromise in Washington are as cliched as jokes about the weather – but when an actual compromise presents itself, sometimes the temptation is to call for a rain check and hold out for a better deal. For dairy, this bill achieves crucial goals that makes flexibility on other issues possible. We need that assurance of steady, secure labor to continue to prosper. Without it, our labor model will continue to be broken, impeding progress and building anxiety in the countryside for the next generation.
And while anyone’s view of perfect legislation will never be possible, this plan, already good in many ways, can still be improved in the Senate, which would through its own bill create a vehicle that would be negotiated with the House version before final passage. We at NMPF are already working behind the scenes with leading Senate voices on this issue, with hopes of charting a path forward for a bill this year in the coming weeks. More to come on that soon.
In the meantime, it’s great to see so many extraordinary efforts – from tending cows in the middle of the night to negotiating a good deal for farmers in the corridors of Congress — rewarded, and that’s why this bipartisan victory is so, so important. We look forward to continuing working with our colleagues in agriculture and allies in the Senate to get agricultural labor reform across the finish line. For all they’ve done, dairy farmers and their workers deserve it. They’ve successfully served our nation in a difficult time. Our nation now should show them its support.