Minnesota dairy farmers are voicing support for a bipartisan House of Representatives immigration reform bill that provides legal status to current ag workers and their families and reforms the H-2A guest worker visa program to allow dairy and year-round ag sectors to participate.
The Farm Workforce Modernization Act was cosponsored by more than 40 lawmakers, including Minnesota Reps. Collin Peterson and Angie Craig.
The proposed legislation has garnered wide support from the agriculture and business community, according to the National Milk Producers Federation. Nearly 300 organizations have called on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., to move the bill through the House chamber.
The bill’s proponents said they are committed to working together to address issues of concern.
“It is vital to move the Farm Workforce Modernization Act (H.R. 5038) through the House as a significant step in working to meet the labor needs of agriculture, both now and in the future,” the group stated in a message to the House.
Peterson said in a news release that farm businesses need a reliable and legal source of workers.
“This effort has produced a proposal that provides a better option than the status quo for many parts of U.S. agriculture,” Petersons said. “As this discussion continues, we need to also address meat and poultry processing workforce needs.”
Minnesota dairy farmers and leaders voiced their support for the bill as well.
“Labor continues to be one of the biggest items holding dairy farmers back,” said Lucas Sjostrom, executive director of the Minnesota Milk Producers Association. “In a time of short crop windows and high stress, labor availability can truly be the difference between a farm making it to next year or not. If passed, this bill finally provides dairy farmers access to the same pool of labor many in agriculture have utilized for decades. We look forward to a real dairy immigration program that considers the needs of both employee and employer for a successful relationship.”
Farm Bureau not on board
However, the American Farm Bureau Federation does not currently support the legislation as proposed. AFBF has concerns that include inflated wage costs and a proposed cap on the number of year-round H-2A workers.
While attending the Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation annual meeting on Nov. 23 in Bloomington, American Farm Bureau Federation president Zippy Duvall told The Farmer that the organization has several concerns. The Adverse Effect Wage Rate, which is the wage that employers must pay their employees through the H-2A program, does not show the true cost of farm labor in the proposed bill. In 2019, the rate was set too high, he said.
Another concern is the proposed cap of 20,000 H-2A workers a year. Half of those visas are reserved for dairy labor. Other ag sectors, such as meat and poultry processing, forestry, and aquaculture are not listed. U.S. dairy farms alone need more than 100,000 H-2A workers per year, Duvall added.
“If we’re really trying to solve a problem, why cap it?” he asked. Plus, a portion of those visas could go to other industries besides ag.
And there is an issue with how to resolve worker complaints and potential H-2A worker lawsuits against farmers.
“Farmers really need to know about ‘private right of action,’” he said. “That makes liability high for farmers.”
Duvall stressed that AFBF wants an H-2A program that works for all farmers, not just some.
“We know that once Congress passes [immigration reform] legislation, no one will have an appetite to revisit the issue,” he said “This bill’s approach is not yet good enough. We need a program that U.S. farmers and ranchers can afford and that allows them to remain competitive in the long term with foreign imports.”
Read the text of H.R. 5038 online.