Crop Conundrum

Ag biz struggles to find workers for farms and dairies

Food. If there's nobody that wants to grow it or pick it, we don't get to eat it.

And with 90 percent of the winter lettuce and leafy greens in America grown in the Yuma area and more than 10,000 full-time farming operations throughout the state, finding enough workers is, in itself, a full-time job.

So understandably, the Arizona Agribusiness industry has a somewhat different take on immigration beyond the traditional "keep-them-out versus welcome-them-in" dichotomy. Despite many technological innovations and the inclusion of robotic pickers for some crops, healthy field row edibles usually don't end up on a dinner plate without some stoop labor wielding lettuce knives.

At last week's annual meeting of the Agribusiness & Water Council of Arizona in Tempe—promoted under the political mantra of Trumping Arizona Agriculture—three industry speakers spoke on the topic of "What We Need In Comprehensive Immigration Reform."

Their consensus? Finding enough workers to clean up cow crap in dairies or hen poop in chicken farms is getting harder and harder and fewer and fewer are lining up waiting to be chosen to bend over all day harvesting strawberries or peppers.

"It's not necessarily that the people aren't available, it's that they don't want to work, or at least work for us," said Jim Manos, chief financial officer of Hickman's Family Farms in Buckeye that processes three-quarters-of-a-million eggs per hour over their seven-football-field-long, 2,000,000-square-foot facility.

"If you think a millennial in this country is going to work in a stinky chicken farm six days a week for up to 12 hours a day in triple digit temperatures, it's not going to happen," Manos said. "So we need to change our thinking about how we can guarantee a labor pool."

Tony Tew, General Manager of Foothill Packing in Yuma, a contract labor harvesting company, discovered nearly a decade ago that what worked before didn't any longer. "We had a shortage of contract labor because with 900 INS agents in Yuma, we couldn't get enough people from Mexico onto our buses," Tew said. "We became a part of the H2A Migrant Worker visa program and these new migrant workers soon began to surpass the productivity of the domestic workers we already had."

When Tew initiated H2A hires, he recruited 120 of those visa workers the first year. "This past year, we brought in 1,100 workers, 50 percent of our company payroll in Yuma. There were 6,000 H2A visa workers in Yuma this year and I'm 100 percent certain that number will increase next year to 8,000 or more. The need is there and with this administration insisting on accountability for migrant workers, this program is a way to proceed. In fact, I'm not sure where we would be today without this program."

The H2A temporary agricultural program allows agricultural employers who anticipate a shortage of domestic workers to bring non-immigrant foreign workers to the U.S. to perform agricultural labor of a temporary or seasonal nature. "Except in extraordinary circumstances, employment is of a temporary nature (lasting no longer) than one year," according to the U.S. Department of Labor. An estimated 150,000 positions were certified last year.

Paul Rovey, a dairy operator from Glendale who represents the United Dairymen of Arizona, says H2A needs to go even further than it does now, beyond just a short-term seasonal status.

"In the dairy industry, we've already moved through a workforce crisis that has now achieved the level of a catastrophe. Over half of the U.S. dairy farm labor pool is comprised of foreign-born workers and our industry today cannot operate without immigrant workers. Yet, despite unemployment rates, we can't find enough American workers to fill our job needs—they're just not interested in working on a dairy farm—and the current national agricultural visa program that focuses on temporary or seasonal workers precludes dairy farms, 24/7/365 operations, from participating."

Hickman's CFO says the farm labor shortage is because many potential workers are not interested in working—at all.

"There are five times as many people in this country on disability insurance than there are working in agriculture—$192 billion will be paid this year to people who are sitting on their butts," Hickman said. "We have 10 million people who don't want to work at all because they'd rather stay on disability and that's got to change."

So immigration reform, finding a way for those who want to work to have an opportunity to do so, may be a key for the agriculture industry.

"But," says Manos, "when was the last time you saw a politician stand at a podium and say, 'Elect me and I'll find a path for citizenship for all illegal people in this country'? Let's look at the recent political change in Washington as an opportunity for us to do some good. Then let's do what farmers have always done, roll up our sleeves and get to work to make things better."

Again, Tony Tew thinks the H2A program is the answer to the farm labor shortage crisis. Find those who are willing to work and give them a job.

"The need is definitely there and there is no quick fix to the immigration reform dilemma," Tew said. "The administration is concerned about illegal migrant workers and wants accountability and this program has control factors that accomplish that."

For dairyman Rovey, the worker shortage crisis represents a domino effect.

"There is no replacement workforce currently available to dairy farms and the loss of the majority of the current dairy workforce would not only decimate our entire industry, if dairy falls, the ripple effect through the rest of agriculture would be incredible," Rovey said.

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