Federal immigration stymies ag labor workforce with few solutions in sight
Author: Marianne Goodland - February 26, 2018 - Updated: March 28, 2018
Robert (RT) Sakata is part of a legendary farming family with a 1,600-acre farm near Brighton. Sakata Farms for 74 years has produced sweet corn, onions, cabbage, pinto beans, wheat, barley, field corn and other vegetables that find their way to kitchen tables all over Colorado.
But part of that tradition is dying. On March 10, the equipment that has helped Sakata Farms bring in the sweet corn is going up for auction. Sakata Farms is getting out of the sweet corn business, due largely to labor issues.
Sakata told Colorado Politics that when he looked at auction brochure, he got a lump in his throat.
During the annual 27th Governor’s Forum on Agriculture, held last week, a panel of experts on agricultural labor issues reviewed the problems farmers and and ranchers face in finding workers, whether that’s American workers or those who come from other countries.
It’s long been acknowledged by those in the industry that Americans won’t do the manual labor offered on farms and ranchers. That makes the owners turn to legal and undocumented immigration, with mixed results at best.
Jon Slutsky, who owns LaLuna Dairy near Fort Collins, started out as the greenest of farmers. He’d never done it before. He and his wife started out with 64 cows in 1981 and now have more than 1,500 head. They’ve gone gone from just the two of them running the farm to 30 employees.
As production rose – they milk three times a day – they brought in more employees. One-third of the workers at his dairy are undocumented, Slutsky said. The idea that undocumented workers are taking American jobs isn’t reality, Slutsky said. Without undocumented workers, “we might not have a business.”
Undocumented workers bring a strong work ethic and want to take care of their families, he explained. Colorado has 200,000 undocumented workers, with many of them here a long time. But when the bread-winner is deported, it brings in fear and depression for the rest of the family, he said. “We’re not the only ones in the world with this problem,” Slutsky said.
Slutsky was part of a team that produced a 2017 white paper, updated this month, on the state of immigration as it affects agriculture in Larimer County. The 18-page paper noted that 36 percent of the farm workforce in Colorado are undocumented; in some areas, such as dairies and large producers, the entire workforce may be undocumented.
The white paper took a hard line on deportation, recommending that local officials could encourage law enforcement to focus on public safety and limit in the assistance of roundups or identification of undocumented workers who have not compromised public safety. “This means limiting referrals to or involvement with Federal agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)…There is considerable fear among undocumented immigrants in the Larimer County community that families might be broken up, with one or both parents being deported,” the paper said.
The situation has gotten worse in the past year, the paper said. “Arrests have tripled. Even those attending routine check-ins and having no criminal record are being detained and deported…Detainees were formerly allowed to return to jobs and family, but the Trump administration now longer utilizes this policy.” It’s meant lower productivity and dependability of ag workers and in other sectors of the workforce dependent on immigrant workers, the report added.
If all undocumented workers were deported, the cost to Colorado agriculture would top $100 million per year, and the paper said some farmers have started to move away from certain labor-intensive crops because they can’t find the labor to maintain and harvest it. That’s all over the state, not just in Larimer County.
The situation is little better for those who rely on the legal immigration system, according to the white paper and to those who attended the forum.
Chris Kraft, co-owner of Badger Creek Farm and Quail Ridge Dairies near Fort Morgan, shared one story of how the legal immigration system worked, or didn’t, for him. He brought in a worker from Mexico under a visa authorized by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The “nonimmigrant NAFTA Professional” visa, known as TN, cost Kraft $4,000 for that one worker. Kraft had to pay for the worker’s flight to Denver. The worker lasted less than a day and was back on a plane to Mexico shortly thereafter. And Kraft got none of his $4,000 back.
Kelli Griffith is executive director of the Mountain Plains Agricultural Service, a trade association for sheep and cattle herders. “We’ve had to advocate for our members in more political arenas,” which includes seeking a way to make the H2A agricultural visa program more functional for ranchers. The current system, Griffith said, requires employers to work with four different federal agencies. Program deadlines don’t suit growing and harvesting seasons for farmers, or how ranching works, Griffith said. As a result, farmers and ranchers have to estimate their workforce needs well in advance, sometimes months or even a year out. Such a system leaves no room for problems down the road, such as drought, for example.
Then there’s the cost for bringing in foreign workers. The minimum wage requirement for H2A is based on the minimum wage in the state where the worker is headed, and often is higher than the federal minimum wage. The farmer or rancher pays for the visa, travel, food and housing, she said. That allows herders to send home their entire paycheck since they have no living expenses.
H2A also requires the employer to attest to the need for that worker, requiring proof that no American wants that job. If the labor need changes, the employer has to commit to paying the worker at least three-quarters of the contract, regardless of how early it ends.
In the last three years, the minimum wage for herders has doubled, and that should lead to lots of applicants, Griffith said. It hasn’t; in fact, the number of applicants for H2A visas has steadily declined. The Larimer County report noted that the current US immigration system provides less than four percent of the workers needed in agriculture.
Michael Marsh, of the National Council of Agriculture Employers, told the audience another issue that affects the agriculture workforce is that the immigrant workforce is aging. “You have have to wonder whether agriculture is sustainable,” he said, absent a workforce to harvest the crops. “These are not jobs that Americans are stepping up for.”
From the right, he’s heard people suggest that prisoners or those on welfare take those jobs. That doesn’t account for those who are disabled and can’t do that kind of work, or whether someone wants milk from a cow “milked by Charles Manson,” he said. From the left, he hears that farmers should pay more or hire union labor. “You cannot get someone from another country to come in and do those jobs,” even at $15 an hour, with health insurance and housing.
And the range of minimum wage pay will drive just who gets workers, Marsh said. An immigrant who comes to the United States to pick peaches will go to California for that $15 an hour wage instead of Georgia, where the wage is much lower, he said. “Who gets the workers? Is it the farm in Florida, or the one in the Northwest?”
Anti-immigrant rhetoric from Washington, D.C. isn’t helping either. “Employees and employers are scared, and with good reason,” because of the escalation of raids by Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE).
Even those who attempt to improve the situation are at risk, Marsh said. Last year, U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia introduced a bill to create a new, workable agricultural guest-worker program that would replace the H2A program. He was immediately attacked as being soft on immigration, and later announced he would not run for another term. The bill passed the House Judiciary Committee on a 17-16 vote last October, Marsh said, because some of the more conservative members were absent that day. U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, a Greeley Republican, was among the “yes” votes that sent the measure to the full House, where it now sits.
The solution, at least to some, is automation. One proposal is that a contractor could contract out robotic equipment and other technology so that the farms wouldn’t have to make huge capital investments. “It can’t happen fast enough,” Sakata told Colorado Politics.