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Next Generation Farming

Lack of Qualified Workers Hurting Agriculture

In labor-starved rural areas, strict immigration policies are hurting agriculture.

While the rest of the nation struggles with an unemployment crisis, rural America is dealing with an entirely different situation – the sheer lack of people qualified to work in agriculture. Here in western Kansas, lots of farmers and ranchers say they have about as much luck getting a rain as they do finding the right people.

A glance at the most recent unemployment figures shows how bad the labor problem is in rural areas. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a total of 51 counties in Kansas have an unemployment rate below the natural rate of 5.0%, with 43 of those counties located in the rural western half of the state. And of the 21 counties with extremely low rates of unemployment below 4%, all but two were in the western half of the state where agriculture is king. 

The most extreme case of low unemployment was Sheridan County in northwest Kansas at 3.0%. Compare Sheridan to urban counties like Wyandotte in northeastern Kansas with 10.4% unemployment, and the contrast between rural and urban America is obvious. Any employer located in a rural area and looking to hire is going to be in fierce competition for the right employees.

This may sound like a good problem to have when the rest of the country is struggling with a lack of jobs. But if you talk to anyone in farming or ranching who is in search of qualified, hard-working people who know and appreciate agriculture and want to live in a very rural area without the amenities of city life, this is a big problem.

One livestock operator in southwest Kansas found this out the hard way. After advertising for workers in urban centers of the state where unemployment was highest, he found some discouraging results.

Of the nearly 20 who responded, a number of them didn't even have a driver's license for varying reasons, and only two had a high school education. Of the three who were invited to interview, only two showed up despite the promise of having their travel expenses paid. Unfortunately, those interviews didn't go well and the interviewees did not receive an offer.

This left the farm one option – bringing in foreign-born workers willing to do the work that resident unemployed workers were not willing or able to do.

Bringing in necessary workers, though, hasn't been made simple under the Obama Administration amidst the cloud of anti-immigrant sentiment polluting politics. In fact, the crackdown on immigration over the past two years has restricted commerce and economic growth certain sectors of the economy.

The problem stems from increased pressure from the government to hire legally while offering no easier solutions to hire. Under the current policy, there has been a surge of I-9 audits to weed out illegal immigrants – a move not accompanied with alternatives for employers to legally hire or document immigrant workers in sufficient numbers – which is causing some businesses to axe plans to expand or to even shrink.

As one livestock operator in western Kansas explains it, the uncertainty of finding adequate numbers of legal workers needed for expanded operations has simply become too high.

Plainly stated, the government has made doing business in the U.S. too risky. While the U.S. could score an easy slam dunk for economic growth by making it simple for workers to come to the U.S., it has become politically unpopular to do so. It's actually more popular to restrict economic growth during a recession than to promote it.

For comedians like Stephen Colbert, agriculture's ironic situation is too amusing.

But for farmers and ranchers in labor-deficit areas like western Kansas, finding the right employees is no laughing matter. If our government is sincere in wanting to boost economic growth and help rural communities, they can start by making it easier to hire immigrant workers and document the ones already here.

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