When the government makes it difficult for immigrants to come to the United States, “we’re shooting ourselves in the foot,” says John Weber, an Iowa farmer and past president of the National Pork Producers Council. His farm, Valley Lane Farms Inc., in Dysart, Iowa, produces 2,400 acres of feed corn and soybeans a year and raises pigs, selling about 14,000 swine annually.
But it’s become increasingly hard to attract local labor. In addition to his family members, Weber has a full-time crew of three people. For the remainder of the work, he uses vendors, who depend on foreign-born labor, he says. So, too, do many seed corn producers in the area.
“It’s a good career path. My farm workers, and those on other pork farms around here, make two to three dollars above minimum wage. If they’re full time, it can lead to a middle-income salary,” he says. “But attracting Americans to work in the pork industry is becoming difficult to impossible.”
The labor problem is even more stark at processing plants, where employees with specialized skills can make $26 an hour. Weber says two new plants are scheduled to open in the region, and they’ll create around 4,000 new jobs. “It’s hard work,” he says. “You don’t stand still. You work four to five hours at a steady pace. It’s cold in there and it’s grueling.”
In no way should we send a signal that workers are not welcome.
In Iowa, foreign-born residents comprise only 5 percent of the population, but they make up 37.9 percent of the workforce in the meatpacking and processing industries and 52.3 percent of the machine operators and tenders on packaging and filling machines. ”We need to be able to recruit immigrants to fill those jobs,” Weber says. He has met with Canadian and Mexican pork producers and, ”They want to talk about immigration policy. We’re concerned about it in the pork industry.”
The National Pork Producers Council advocates for a workable solution that would make foreign-work visas more effective and that would allow undocumented workers who are already in the United States to continue working legally. “Farms and packing plants rely heavily on immigrant labor,” the council states. “Without access to immigrant labor, production costs would increase, leading to higher food prices for consumers. In some cases, a shortage of labor could lead to facilities shutting down, causing serious financial harm for those operations.”
Weber says the agriculture industry’s labor obstacles aren’t insurmountable. “We need a strong H-2A visa” — a temporary work visa for foreign agricultural workers — “that will welcome people who want to work,” he says. “In no way should we send a signal that workers are not welcome.”