“The most important industry that we have in this country is agriculture,” says Lee Maddox, of the Tennessee Farm Bureau. “We depend on it every day, and we’ve got to take care of it to make sure it stays that way for future generations.” To do that, however, America must implement immigration reform, he says. American farmers depend on foreign-born labor to produce safe, affordable food. But the government has made it too expensive, cumbersome, and unreliable for many farmers to secure the temporary workforce they need.
“I don’t think Americans want to be reliant on another country to produce our food for us,” says Maddox. “It’s too important to our national security. But without reform, our farmers aren’t going to be able to stay in business. And then we’ll have no choice.”
U.S.-born workers show scant interest in taking field jobs, essentially forcing farmers to rely on foreign-born workers. An exhaustive study out of North Carolina found that in 2011, when the unemployment rate was still relatively high, only 268 U.S.- born workers applied for 6,500 farm jobs, despite heavy advertising of the positions. Employers are required by law to hire every qualified American who applies, and of those 268 U.S. workers, only seven stayed to complete the season. “It’s hard work and it’s timely work,” says Maddox. “And when you need that workforce there to harvest or help plant a crop, it’s critical that they are ready and able to get to work. You can’t just let it rot in the field.” But apart from some college kids working part time, Tennessee farms haven’t received much interest in agriculture jobs from domestic workers. “The only thing that’s been successful to this point is a migrant labor workforce,” says Maddox.
Yet legally hiring migrant labor is neither cheap nor easy. The H-2A visa, the only program for migrant agricultural laborers, requires that farmers file detailed paperwork months in advance of the work date, specifying each task and exactly how many workers are needed. Farmers must then pay application fees, visa fees, round-trip transportation costs, and provide housing for the season, a total estimated to average $2,500 per H-2A worker. In addition, the federal government sets the minimum allowable H-2A wage, which in Tennessee was put at $10.92 in 2017, 50 percent above the state’s minimum wage.
I don’t think Americans want to be reliant on another country to produce our food for us.
“It’s too much for both sides,” Maddox says. “You have to submit how many workers you need and when you need them to the Department of Labor 180 days in advance. Farmers would like to have that timetable adjusted because it’s hard to predict based on weather conditions when you would need the workers.”
Many farmers say they don’t mind what it costs to hire migrant workers, because in return they receive a highly skilled, reliable workforce for the entire season. But when farmers apply for H-2A visa workers, and bureaucratic blunders delay or impede those workers’ arrival, they are left in costly bind. And, thanks to what Maddox attributes to complicated paperwork and vetting by three different government agencies, such delays are far from unusual. A national survey by the National Council of Agricultural Employers in 2010 found that 72 percent of farmers who used the H-2A visa program that year received their workers late, and that the average delay was 22 days. Those delays translated to $170 million in lost revenue for U.S. farmers.
The Tennessee Farm Bureau would like to see the H-2A process streamlined and made more affordable. “The bottom line is we have to have this workforce to produce these crops,” Maddox says. “If we’re going to continue to enjoy the freedom that we have — enjoying the safe food supply source that we have — then immigration reform has to be addressed and continually updated so that it meets the needs of agriculture’s current and future workforces.”
“It would help everybody if we had a stable work supply that farmers can depend upon for their bottom line,” he adds. “Not just farmers, and not just the migrants who are given economic opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have access to back home. It’s also going to help American consumers. That’s what’s going to maintain how safely and efficiently we produce their food. And that’s what keeps the prices down.”