Sep 3, 2021
For labor reform, it’s all about focus as the homestretch beckons
Michael Marsh

It is always important to bring focus to achieving a penultimate goal.

This mantra applies to many things in our lives. It applies to assuring we have properly irrigated and nurtured our crops prior to their harvest and kept the pests away. It applies to our physical training for a big race or diligent study for an important test. It applies to the spiritual and familial things we engage in that nourish our very soul.

Michael Marsh
Michael Marsh

Believe it or not, it also applies in the political world (as opposed to the real one) as we strive to pass critical legislation. Focus is important to achieving that penultimate goal.

Farmers and ranchers have been toiling for decades in Washington, D.C., to pass important legislation securing a reliable workforce. They have left their land and their families to make the jaunt to the nation’s Capitol to press their case for agricultural labor reform. They have watched as the challenges to sustaining their businesses with few of our neighbors willing to come out to the farm or ranch and help do the hard work of securing our nation. These hearty individuals have been making that jaunt for decades.

And, for decades, distractions from focus have led to an inability for agriculture to get to the goal of achieving a presidential signature on a bill that will accomplish this needed reform. Agriculture must have that focus now.

The House of Representatives earlier this year once again passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act. The bill was one of those too-rare occasions in Washington, D.C., where leadership emerges from both sides of the political spectrum to advance something for the good of our nation. The president indicated his support for agricultural labor reform in his address to Congress.

So right now, politically, there is an important component missing to achieving the goal of reform.

The National Council of Agricultural Employers (NCAE) serves on the Steering Committee of the Agricultural Workforce Coalition (AWC). The AWC is working right now to resolve that missing political piece necessary to realize that penultimate goal. We have started conversations with the U.S. Senate to encourage a similar bipartisan effort to get us to the finish line. And, we seem to be making progress, but we must hurry, as the clock is already ticking down to another election cycle.

A Senate bill, just like the legislation that emerged collaboratively to see if we can achieve a bill that strongly considers the needs of agricultural employers. Of course, that is who we work for and we are proud of that responsibility.

A Senate bill must address reform measures for our existing workforce, but at the same time has to prepare us for a future flow of workers to do farm tasks that too few Americans are willing to do.

Like many business people, I am always fascinated with numbers. You probably are too, so I will share a few to add some context to this discussion.

The last U.S. Census of Agriculture that was performed by the USDA was for 2017. The next one will be done in 2022. The most recent census indicated that, for 2017, there were 2.4 million agricultural workers hired in the U.S.

At the present time, annually, just north of 200,000 visas are issued for temporary ag workers to come into the U.S. as H-2A workers. It is important because, although agricultural jobs pay well (on average more than twice the federal minimum wage, according to USDA), fewer and fewer domestic workers desire to come out to the farm or ranch to lend a hand.

The 2015-2016, National Ag Worker Survey (NAWS) that is done by the Department of Labor adds more context (The next survey, for 2017-2018, was published since this writing). The NAWS points out that many domestic workers are quickly aging out of agriculture. The survey also notes that of the existing domestic agricultural workforce, about half of the workers are absent proper authorization.

So, if we do the arithmetic, 2.4 million hired ag workers, minus 200,000 temporary H-2A ag workers, leaves a population of approximately 2.2 million domestic workers. And about half of those workers, or maybe 1.1 million, may be unauthorized. And all of the domestic ag workers, authorized and otherwise, are trending older.

Not a bright future if you are a farm or ranch family who needs workers.

Consequently, the Senate bill that will emerge from our effort must contain elements that assure the present workforce is maintained. Some existing ag workers will need a path to attain legal status. At the same time, a Senate bill must ensure that in the future, if a farm or ranch family needs someone to pitch in, they will be able to find a good employee ready, willing and able to perform. That reformed future flow program must not be so unwieldy that it crushes the legacy family operations it is supposed to help.

NCAE is focused on achieving our goal. I hope you will help us bring focus to the politicians.

Michael Marsh is the President & CEO of the National Council of Agricultural Employers.

Be sure to check out our other specialty agriculture brands