“Immigration reform is absolutely critical,” agreed Beth Ford, chief executive of Land O’Lakes, a farmer-owned cooperative best known for its dairy products.
“It was made more obvious during this pandemic, the critical nature of our safe, affordable, resilient food supply. This is a national security issue,” said Ford during a digital “fireside chat” with Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.
Growers say it is increasingly difficult to find workers domestically and the H-2A visa program for seasonal guest workers is unduly onerous to use and often does not deliver workers when they are needed. Half of all farm workers, perhaps 1.25 million people, are believed to be undocumented.
Congress has not enacted agricultural labor reform since the 1980s. A bipartisan House-passed farm labor bill died in the Senate last year. It would have given legal status to undocumented farm workers, eventually allowing permanent residence in the United States, and modernized the H-2A guest worker program, including visas good for three years and allowing work at dairies and other year-round agricultural jobs. Land O’Lakes was an early supporter of the House bill.
“I tell everyone the biggest limiting factor in U.S. agriculture is our labor force,” said Duvall. “The programs we have access to now are too cumbersome and they’re not even available to the dairy farmers that are in your cooperative. So we need to have a legislative fix to having guest workers come in to work, not be seasonal, but able to help all of agriculture.”