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Farmers need a stable workforce to grow and harvest crop

Have you ever thought about how fruits and vegetables get to your plate?

It’s a labor intensive and exhaustive process. If field workers aren’t available for planting or for the harvest, the crops wither on the vine or end up rotting in the field or greenhouse. Our business, which produces grafted starter plants for farmers, experienced this labor shortage this past season. 

The reason: Outdated immigration policies have persistently failed to address our nation’s decades-long decline in workers. It’s why I’m urging Senators Burr and Tillis to further improve and support the bipartisan Farm Workforce Modernization Act or FWMA, which would finally give North Carolina farmers and growers the stable workforce we need and deserve.

Our company produces in the peak season close to a half million grafted vegetable plants each week. To graft them, we counted this year on 30 temporary agricultural workers from Mexico beside our local, mainly Hispanic, seasonal labor force. But this year, half of the H-2A visa group was delayed for over six weeks. By the time they finally arrived, a lot of time was wasted. We tried to find replacements locally, but we already knew that would be a failure, as this is the actual reason to use the H2A program in the first place. It has happened before to many of the farms across the state. The FWMA, with further improvements, can make the H-2A program far less bureaucratic and expensive.

Agricultural companies like ours depend on foreign-born workers, because we can’t find enough labor.  We’re mandated by law to first advertise locally, but few people respond. Between 2014 and 2016, 87 percent of H-2A employers who requested American workers received none. And most Americans who did respond, showed up after the work had already begun. Even fewer stuck it out through the first day, or made it through the season.

I’ve been working in the Ag sector for more than 30 years. The farm labor shortages have only gotten worse. Between 2002 and 2014, the number of field and crop workers in the U.S. declined by 146,000, according to New American Economy. In North Carolina, this was a drop of 13.4 percent. Georgia saw a decline of 27 percent and California saw a drop of 39.4 percent. Now, after Covid-19, analysts predict that U.S. farms and livestock operations are on track to see employment drop to levels lower than 1996, the first year the USDA started to keep track. According to trade publications, American farms employed 11 percent fewer workers during one-week periods this past January and April compared to the comparable weeks in 2020.

This is disastrous for agricultural businesses, and automated improvements can’t always fill the gaps. Decreased production has also been a significant factor in our growing reliance on imported foods. Today, over half of the fruit Americans eat is imported, up from 23 percent in 1975, according to the Department of Agriculture. We now import 31 percent of vegetables, up from just 5.8 percent.

We need a more farmer-friendly H-2A system to staff our farms. But it’s not enough. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act would also resolve the problem of undocumented farmworkers. Roughly half of all field workers—about one million people — in the nation are undocumented. Farmers and growers want to hire a legal workforce, but they often have no other choice if they want to bring in the harvest. FWMA would also put long-time undocumented farm workers on a road to legal status, allowing famers to legally employ people they’ve depended on for years, giving both workers and farmers peace of mind. 

Without Congressional intervention, much of the food you eat will continue to be grown and harvested abroad. I know I would prefer to eat food grown on American soil, under our rigorous food safety regulations. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act has already passed in the House of Representatives with bipartisan support. Now it needs further fine tuning and for this we need our senators to step up. This is the first real chance we’ve had in 30 years to give security and stability to the farmers and workers who provide the food we eat every day. Let’s not waste it. 

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Bert Lemkes is a greenhouse operator in Mills River.