I've had the opportunity to reflect on the last cotton ginning season with several cotton ginners. They never fail to remind me about how hard it is to get and keep good labor for their gin and for the ag industry at large.
It's a problem that never seems to get resolved.
Some gins have eased the burden by sharing their labor. As the early ginning season wraps up in south Texas, some workers travel to other places across the Cotton Belt that start up later in the year. But it's a temporary fix in a small segment of ag workers.
Many producers and ginners use foreign labor. Most of the workers come by way of Mexico, but there are a number of operations that employ people from as far away as South Africa.
A good number of those workers are here on H2A or H2B visas. The biggest complaint I hear about those programs is that there are not enough of these visas to fill the demand, as a result thousands of unregistered workers flow over the U.S./Mexican border.
Every day workers flood the border to cross and work in fields picking produce or other ag related jobs. Some are documented and involved in one work program or another, others are not.
When I was a kid, hiring workers that had crossed the border from Mexico was a normal thing to do. There were no penalties for the growers. Workers who had crossed the border without the proper papers were employed across the U.S. If they were caught without the appropriate documents, they were simply returned to the border. They often reappeared days, weeks or even months later to return to their former job.
So much has changed since that time. As the enforcement penalties have become harsher for those employing undocumented workers, the need for those workers has intensified as more people are unwilling to work in the ag environment.
On both sides of the political spectrum, leaders call out for immigration reform, yet here we sit without any kind of action. The H2A and H2B fall far short of our employment needs.
Illegal operators funnel undocumented workers over the border, often putting the lives of those potential workers at risk. And, as the nation cries out about human trafficking, nothing is done about the lives that are endangered daily by the smugglers who haul live bodies in the back of overstuffed vehicles.
At this time, we have no fix for the problem of labor in agriculture. Most of the people I speak with just throw their hands up and make do with what labor they are able to get for any particular season.
Our legislators are either sitting on their hands or are unwilling to act. In the meantime, the operations that feed and clothe the world are left to carry the burden.