But the Farm Workforce Modernization Act just passed in the U.S. House of Representatives proposes to relieve some of the strain.
The bill, H.R. 5038, would allow immigrants working in agricultural to apply for legal status and would add year-round visas for foreign workers to the H-2A temporary, seasonal visa program.
Labor is a huge issue, Rick Naerebout, CEO of Idaho Dairymen’s Association, said.
All the dairymen he talks with are short of workers, and the issue remains IDA’s biggest focus, he said.
“We’re trying to alleviate that stress point for our dairymen — it’s borderline crisis level,” he said.
IDA has been working on immigration reform for more than a decade and has worked with Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, on language in the House bill since April, he said.
Allowing existing foreign workers — who’ve worked full-time in agriculture for at least two years — to stay in the U.S. and apply for legal status is one of the better pieces in the bill, he said.
“It protects them and their family members from deportation,” he said.
Those workers and their families currently live in fear their lack of legal status will be discovered, and that keeps them from being fully engaged in the local community, he said.
Without that fear, they’d be more engaged “and that benefits all of us,” he said.
A legal workforce is important in all of agriculture. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, nearly half of the agricultural workforce is here without legal status, he said.
The bill would also provide for 20,000 year-round visas annually, with 10,000 for dairy.
While IDA appreciates the recognition of the dairy industry’s need, it’s concerned the number of visas is too low, he said.
“We’re concerned demand is going to exceed the 20,000 per year that’s allocated,” he said.
Hopefully that issue will be taken up in the Senate, he said.
National Milk Producers Federation is also concerned with the visa cap, Paul Bleiberg, NMPF’s vice president of government affairs, said.
The primary issue is that it might not provide enough workers and just fill some shortages. But there is the ability to increase the number over time, he said.
Under the bill, the 20,000 cap would be in place for the first three years. But those visas can increase 12.5% annually starting in year four, and the bill prescribes no cap in year 10, he said.
NMPF would like to see dairy’s access to visas enhanced, but the framework of the bill is very strong, he said.
It addresses two issues important to dairy farmers — a legal workforce and access to year-round foreign labor, he said.
“We think it’s a great step forward, and we’ll be eager to work in the Senate now,” he said.
Immigration reform is something Washington dairy farmers have been seeking for quite a while, Scott Dilley, communications director for Washington State Dairy Federation, said.
“Dairy farmers have had trouble finding workers for decades,” he said.
Opening the H-2A program for year-round workers for agriculture and dairy in particular will allow access to more workers, he said.
“It’s a good step for a good, sustainable workforce both now and into the future,” he said.
That’s a big issue and a key concern, he said.
Allowing foreign agricultural workers to earn legal status will also help agriculture move forward in a sustainable fashion, he said.
“We certainly would like to see workers in agriculture be able to stay and continue to work in agriculture,” he said.
It’s more than just a business issue. It’s not just about employers and employees. It’s also about communities and rural economies, he said.
“It’s about workforce stability and social stability,” he said.
Immigration reform needs a multi-pronged solution, and this latest path forward addresses that in a constructive way, he said.