For city slickers, getting agricultural products on the table seems fairly simple. You purchase some broccoli or zucchini at the grocery store, go home and prepare it, and sit down for a nutritious and delicious dish.
But the process is far more complex, and it has been made more difficult by a shortage of farmworkers.
“We have long known that Americans do not want to do these jobs,” one grower in Texas told The Washington Post. “We’ve been struggling with labor shortages for decades, but now it’s come to a crisis point. The labor force has completely dried up.”
Producers long have relied on migrant workers to work their fields, with those workers providing a crucial link in the chain of the agriculture industry. But immigration policies implemented under President Donald Trump have combined with the COVID-19 pandemic to limit the number of workers.
A shortfall of immigrants has exacerbated labor shortages and tangled the supply chain, leading to inflation and hobbling the economy at a time when more than 10 million jobs remain unfilled. This has affected the hospitality, construction and health care industries, but is most noticeable in agriculture and has an oversized impact in Washington.
According to the state Department of Agriculture, Washington is the nation’s leading producer of apples, blueberries, hops, pears and sweet cherries, while ranking No. 2 in items such as asparagus and potatoes. The state’s agriculture and food processing industries employ 164,000 people and generate approximately $20 billion in annual revenue.
When ag workers are difficult to find, it impacts all Washingtonians; the aerospace, high-tech and online retail sectors might ebb and flow, but we still need to eat.
Congress has been slow to address what is a clear and present issue. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act passed the House last year, but the Senate did not take up the bill and bipartisan negotiations fell apart.
Now, Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., has introduced legislation to revise the agricultural visa system and offer migrant farmworkers a path to permanent residency. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, is championing the bill in the House, but Bennet did not secure a Republican sponsor in the Senate, leaving little hope that the legislation will gain traction.
It is frustrating that Congress has left many important issues to the lame-duck session following the November election. It is equally frustrating that the issue of a farmworker shortage inevitably gets engulfed in the politics of immigration, which have proven intractable.
The United States’ H-2A visa program allows farmers who can’t find domestic workers to bring in foreign workers on temporary work visas. But that comes with regulatory scrutiny, including requirements that employers provide housing and pay prevailing wages.
As one Washington official says, “If you use the legal worker program, you have to pay a higher wage than if you hire undocumented workers. Kind of nonsensical, but it is what it is.” The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that 50 percent of farmworkers are undocumented.
In introducing the Affordable and Secure Food Act last week, Bennet said: “This plan is broadly supported by farmers, by labor, by immigration advocates, and business. There is no reason that we shouldn’t get this done.”
Except, of course, for the fact that immigration is a valuable wedge issue for both parties, leaving open the possibility of empty tables for American families.