Legislators Need To Understand The Labor Needs Of Specialty Crop Producers [Opinion]

After you read the headline, you probably thought we had a job opening at American Vegetable Grower. In fact, it is about your“job openings,” especially during harvest.

As long as I can remember, the labor situation has always been in the limelight. Thanks to the current shortage in the West and the recent backlog involving the Department of Labor (DOL) and United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) processing H-2A workers that occurred this spring, the situation moved from the limelight to a floodlight, so to speak.

One result of the processing problem, which involved the government’s use of U.S. mail instead of using email, was growers in the Southeast didn’t get the help they needed for their early crop. Having a labor force in place is an extremely time-sensitive situation. Why didn’t the DOL and USCIS know that and understand how inefficient snail mail would be in that situation?

Homing in on the West, the drought brought its own set of issues and when you add the problem of finding workers who will do stoop labor, that it only exacerbates the situation. A grower in California recently told me one reason growers in the state are losing crews is because workers don’t want to do back-bending work. He said we must pick up the pace on automation.

If you read the cover story beginning on page 4, “Options In Mechanization,” you’ll see automation is making inroads in bits and pieces for some growers. For example, a grower in Indiana is able to reduce the number of people on his crew by a few workers with the use of double sorters. On the small end of the production spectrum, an edamame grower has solved her harvesting issue, thanks to the development of a unit that can harvest a 100-foot row of beans in just a few minutes.

These are just a couple examples of labor-saving devices, but more work is needed, for both large and small-scale producers. We know immigration and labor reform legislation will not even be considered until after the election, so the problem remains: You need labor.

That’s not to say engineers won’t continue to work on machines to automate or reduce the number of people you need to harvest your crop. They will, but that will take time and money — two things often in short supply.

It is time for change. Congress needs to pass immigration reform that gives growers access to a legal and stable workforce. I would add that we need to do a better job of not only educating the public on the needs of the grower, and the fact that the price they pay for produce will increase, we need to educate those in government positions. Perhaps if we did, the processing backlog could have been avoided.

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