Labor Shortages Mean Lost Income

A month ago, I presented American Vegetable Grower® magazine’s 15th annual Grower Achievement AwardSM to Arvin, CA-based Tasteful Selections at United Fresh’s Washington Conference. Accepting the award for the farm was Bob Bender, President and General Manager.

As Bender mentioned in an article talking about the problems impacting the industry, one of the issues plaguing his farm — which produces specialty potatoes, carrots, garlic, and watermelon on about 9,000 acres — is labor. It’s probably an issue for you too. To combat this problem, he says, Tasteful Selections uses linear irrigation, which reduces the need for labor and can irrigate 98% of the field. He also keeps watch on areas where automation can come into play, especially in the operation’s processing facility.

Labor was also a big topic of discussion during the Washington Conference. It was noted that labor shortages have resulted in more than $1.3 billion in lost farm income. It’s difficult to even wrap your head around that number!

As much as mechanization is touted as a way out of the labor mess, the National Council of Agricultural Employers’ Frank Gasperini told conference attendees it will not solve all labor problems. Mechanization is costly, and he pointed out that incorporating it in fruits and vegetables is not the same as using the technology in corn and soybeans.

The game plan remains the same as it has for a number of years: Congress must fix this problem. As that will not happen anytime soon and especially right before a presidential election, you still need to figure out how to get your crops harvested using the current cumbersome system.

If you weren’t able to attend United Fresh’s Washington Conference and take part in the annual march on Capitol Hill to discuss issues critical to the produce industry, I hope you will take the time to contact your own representatives in Congress and let them know — in detail — why you deserve to have a simplified guestworker program that will allow you access to the workers you need, when you need them.

Produce can’t wait in the field for workers to arrive. It was noted that on average, guestworkers arrive about 20 days late. Remember last spring when there was a bottleneck at the border and some growers didn’t receive workers in time to harvest their early crops? We also learned that the Department of Labor was using the U.S. Postal Service rather than email to process important information. Unacceptable.

Agriculture is not a typical industry; you are fulfilling a basic human need. Tell your story.

It’s time you received the help you need.

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One comment on “Labor Shortages Mean Lost Income

  1. I think the solution is a proper e-verify program. Guest workers would be processed in their country of origin with name, picture, etc. This information would go into a central pool of available workers. The workers themselves would be pre-vetted by immigration (similar to the way a VISA is granted now). The system would rely on biometric data for identification (Picture, Fingerprint, etc.). This would make it harder to cheat the system. Farmers would receive an inexpensive biometric reader that guest workers would use to “clock-in” every so often. This would verify that they are still working at the farm. Workers who do not report at their farm or that choose to leave the farm would be removed from the guest worker pool and face arrest and deportation.

    Farmers could use this system to request workers. The farmer would request say 50 workers for a defined period of time. The system would then select from the pre-vetted workers 50 eligible workers. Those workers would then be allowed immediate entry into the country with a temporary VISA. The farmer would then report to the website when the workers arrive and possibly a check-in once a month to verify the worker is still needed and on the farm. If the worker is no longer needed, then they would be returned to the available pool, but with a preference for additional work since they are already in the country.

    The system could be setup to allow for a defined period of time a guest worker is allowed to stay in the country. This would allow other people seeking guest worker status an opportunity to work in the country. After a fixed number of hours in the guest worker system, the person could apply for a green card and use the documented guest worker time as evidence of good behavior and potentially cut down on the fees needed to obtain a green card.

    This type of a system could be easily used to identify workers who have specific crop skills (Harvesting lettuce, Cultivation, Tractor Skills, etc.). This would make finding the workers with the proper skills much easier for a farmer.

    This is just something I pulled out of my head after reading the article. It is time the industry starts coming up with solutions like this to fix OUR problem. If congress had a system that they could immediately turn to, it might make getting legislation passed a lot easier.

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