Vegetable growers face an uncomfortable set of truths:
- Government regulations can make life difficult for food producers.
- Regulations often stem from politics.
- Politics is heavily influenced by public opinion.
- And the public has little understanding of how food is grown.
As a result, American vegetable growers face a real challenge when it comes to public perception of farmworkers, said Frank Gasperini, Executive Vice President of the National Council of Agricultural Employees, at the Great Lakes Expo in December 2016.
With fewer people connected to growing, the work involved has become stereotyped. It’s amber waves of grain, not diverse fields of vegetables. Conversely, many believe all farms are small homesteads where a handful of extra workers, willing to labor long hours, can bring in the harvest, he said.
He mentioned a Congressman who said growers in his area are tougher and willing to bring all the kids home, even the doctors and lawyers who have moved on work the hours needed. There’s no need for more labor. His area growers are tough enough to get the job done without outside help.
Apparently this same Congressman thinks fresh vegetables and fruit are overrated. After all, Inuits were able to survive on blubber alone.
Gasperini cited a few stats: 14% of our labor force is 55 years or older, with an average experience of 14 years. Only 16% of labor is migrant, and a measly 2% are new arrivals.
The labor issue is so important, it’s a national security issue, he said.
Gasperini pointed out that, since a lack of labor is reducing the number of fields producing vegetables every year, it makes the U.S. more dependent on foreign-grown produce. And if other countries are supplying our food, then that makes us vulnerable to foreign powers who may use food as leverage.
Gasperini’s Prediction of Labor Issues
With the incoming Trump Administration, and nominations of a new Attorney General in Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions and Secretary of Labor, Andrew Puzder, Gasperini had a couple of predictions.
1. Nationwide mandatory E-Verify. Many areas of the U.S. already have mandatory background checks using the government system E-Verify. It’ll now likely to be a national requirement.
2. Employer sanctions. Sessions is a known hardliner for immigration violations, he said. Fines are likely to increase. Jail time, technically a possibility, will likely to be reserved for gross violations.
So, what can you do about all this? Several things you already know about. Make sure your paperwork is in order when hiring, talk to your local Congressman about the realities of your operation, and continue to come up with innovative solutions, as you always manage to do.