West Coast farm groups are cheering the March 3 reintroduction of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which passed the House of Representatives with a wide bipartisan majority in late 2019 but was bottled up by the pandemic and election-year politics in the Senate.
The bill's sponsors, Reps. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., say H.R. 1537 would provide stability, predictability and fairness to one of the nation's most critical sectors.
“As one of only a few farmers in Congress, I understand the invaluable contributions our producers and farmworkers make to our nation’s unparalleled agriculture industry," Newhouse said. "Bringing our agriculture labor program into the 21st century is absolutely critical as we work to recover from the impacts of the pandemic and ensure a stable food supply chain in the United States. We must act now to provide certainty to farmers, ranchers, and farmworkers across the country.”
Related: Ag labor solution offered in House
Newhouse said the original bill was "negotiated in good faith" by agriculture groups, labor representatives and members of Congress.
The bill garnered support from over 300 agriculture organizations in the 116th Congress, and many of the groups lined up quickly to back its revival. Groups in the West that have issued statements in support of the legislation include the California Farm Bureau Federation, Western Growers, the Washington Apple Commission, the Northwest Horticulture Council, the Washington State Potato Commission, Hop Growers of America, and the Washington Winegrowers Association.
“A reliable workforce is one of the top challenges facing Washington’s apple growers,” said Todd Fryhover, president of the Washington Apple Commission. He added the legislation "is a great step forward to finally make progress that will reform our broken agriculture labor programs to benefit farmers and the farmworkers we rely on.”
Current, future employees
CFBF president Jamie Johansson said the bill's passage "would improve agricultural visa programs and accommodate immigrant agricultural employees already in the United States, while enhancing border security.”
The bill’s reintroduction comes at a particularly important time, Johansson said, as farmers and their employees maintain agricultural production during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Long before the pandemic, we recognized the people who work on California farms and ranches as essential to reliable supplies of healthy food and farm products, he said. "The pandemic has only underscored the importance of assuring the people who work on farms and ranches can do so with the security of legal immigration status."
Western Growers president and chief executive officer Dave Puglia said the bill would address two major needs for agriculture -- a way to retain existing, experienced workers and a mechanism for attracting future ones.
The bill "reforms the visa program to secure a reliable future flow of guest workers," he said. "Additionally, after a satisfactory transition period, it includes E-Verify for agricultural employers, demonstrating our industry’s commitment to a long-term labor solution.
“We recognize that there is more work to be done, but this marks a major step forward," Puglia said. "The viability of family farms and rural communities across the country, as well as a safe and secure domestic food supply, requires an adequate workforce. We will continue working to advance this legislation and enlisting the support of problem-solving legislators of both parties in both houses as well as the Biden Administration this year.”
For a two-page summary of the bill, click here.