New Congress Must Focus on H-2A Reform
By Terry Wolters
During the week of Dec. 12, with only days remaining in the legislative session, a bill introduced in the U.S. Senate intended to address the long-running labor shortage in American agriculture. Unfortunately, while well intentioned, it did not go far enough to provide meaningful assistance for the pork industry, year-round livestock farmers or the millions of American consumers already burdened by record-high food costs and rising inflation.
I have spent my entire life in the pork industry and work daily with family farms to help them flourish. A prevailing theme I see across our industry is many producers need additional skilled workers.
While this is not a new problem, it is unfortunately a growing one. Farmers in rural communities are as desperate as ever for experienced workers who are crucial to animal health and welfare and to provide Americans with a reliable supply of nutritious food.
To complicate matters, declining populations and rising ages of residents in these communities often mean there simply aren’t local workers available.
The H-2A temporary agricultural visa program was established in 1987 and sought to help by allowing agricultural employers to hire foreign workers, primarily for seasonal demands. The problem is not all agriculture is seasonal. Pork production, for instance, is a 365-day-a-year effort.
Additionally, the cap on how many H-2A visas can be issued is far too restrictive.
This bill, deemed the Affordable and Secure Food Act, addressed the problem, in part, by expanding the H-2A program. A similar bill, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, was passed in the House of Representatives last year.
While these pieces of legislation will hopefully serve as an opportunity to expand the discussion surrounding the labor crisis facing American farmers, they don’t do nearly enough to solve the problem. Given the limitations of the previous bills, the new Congress will need to look for meaningful solutions in the new year.
The good news is this is a solvable problem. There are plenty of skilled individuals who want to work hard to meet America’s food demands. However, comprehensive reform to the current visa system is far overdue.
The next Congress must prioritize the H-2A visa program and move to eliminate the annual cap on the number of visas that can be issued and allow for year-round agricultural workers. Failure to do so runs the risk of making an existing crisis even worse for both farmers and the millions of Americans who rely on them.
Terry Wolters is president of the National Pork Producers Council and a hog farmer from Pipestone, Minn. This opinion column was originally published by Agri-Pulse on Dec. 22, 2022.