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Policy

House of Representatives (HR) 4092, the Agricultural Guest Worker Act of 2017, or AG Act, was introduced by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) with the goal of dismantling and overhauling the H-2A program to find a more workable solution for bringing in foreign workers to the U.S. ag industry.

On Oct. 25, the House Judiciary Committee approved HR 4092 on a 17-16 vote, and House Agriculture Committee Chairman K. Michael Conaway (R-Texas) commented, “It’s time for an ag worker program that both respects our nation’s immigration laws and keeps American agriculture competitive. As a former chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Mr. Goodlatte understands the challenges facing farmers and ranchers. His bill cuts red tape and institutes a flexible program that accounts for the different labor needs of various producers – be it the ongoing needs of a dairy operation or the seasonal needs of specialty crop farmers.”

“While we understand that getting a bill out of committee is only the first step, and there is still much to do to ensure the needs of sheep producers are met, we are grateful many of our priorities were included in the AG Act,” said American Sheep Industry Association (ASI) President Mike Corn. “Provisions for a skilled multi-year-round work force, while securing our border, are the hallmarks of a solid guest worker program. We look forward to continuing to work with Chairman Goodlatte and his colleagues in the House and Senate to ensure the final legislation improves on the success of the H-2A program.”

The bill

“Although no other country in the world rivals America’s agriculture industry, our nation’s farmers face many obstacles in today’s global economy,” Goodlatte wrote in a Sept. 6 editorial. “One challenge is access to a stable and reliable workforce.”

“HR 4092 proposes to completely replace the current H-2A agricultural guest worker program,” says Kelli Griffith, Mountain Plains Agricultural Service executive director. “The new visa designation would be H-2C.”

Goodlatte further said the H-2A program is expensive, flawed and burdensome as a result of extensive red tape required for producers to obtain workers.

“The AG Act replaces the H-2A program with a more efficient and flexible guest worker program that is designed to meet the needs of a diverse agriculture industry,” Goodlatte said.

Positive direction

The bill, as introduced, expands eligibility for guest workers to producers in all aspects of production agriculture.

“Among others, dairy and meat processing employers would now have access to the H-2C program,” Griffith said.

The H-2C program offers a number of positive aspects, including contract and at-will designations.

“A ‘contract’ and ‘at-will’ designation, combined with longer employer certification periods for employers, are expected to create more flexibility and opportunity for both workers and employers,” Griffith comments. “Numerous provisions are also included to protect American workers and ag employers, as well as foreign workers.”

Additionally, Griffith noted that the program would be administered and enforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, rather than the U.S. Department of Labor.

In addition, the AG Act will allow experienced, unauthorized ag workers in the U.S. to continue working in the country by joining the H-2C program, so they can legally participate in the ag workforce.

“The AG Act also provides farmers with much needed flexibility,” Goodlatte says. “It ensures that the marketplace, not Washington, drives the agriculture industry.”

Room for improvement

Despite positivity for modifications for an agriculture guest worker program, Griffith said, however, there are challenges inherent in Goodlatte’s bill.

“The proposed cap and mandatory e-verify is a challenge for agriculture, particularly when we combine that with more aggressive enforcement,” Griffith said, noting the ag industry has articulated their concerns on those aspects.

A cap for visas would likely not satisfy the current need for foreign ag workers, and when the additional industries allowed by the bill are included, Griffith said, “That cap to visas is likely not sufficient for the number of current H-2A visas and the growth that would occur.”

Additionally, Griffith noted, “Mandatory e-verify without a workable foreign guest worker program that can accommodate the labor demand would result in ag producers being unable to operate their business, and, as a result, the country would be left without a secure food supply.”

Ag labor

In the wake of impending changes, Griffith explained the current H-2A program continues to be essential for the agriculture industry and a growing number of employers.

“The number of employers and job positions approved each year increases annually,” Griffith said. “While the program has some challenges and room for improvement, it has also worked for many years as the only viable option for the agriculture industry for employees.”

“Rep. Goodlatte is a great supporter of the ag industry in general, and he continues to be helpful in the effort to create a workable guest worker program,” Griffith comments. “His advocacy and tireless efforts regarding this crucial labor supply are appreciated.”

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Casper – On Dec. 2, a bipartisan agreement was reached by the Senate and House Committees on Energy and Natural Resources to include a package of public lands bills in the Fiscal Year 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

Travis McNiven, legislative assistant for Senator John Barrasso, addressed the closing general session of the 2014 Wyoming Stock Growers Association Winter Roundup on the bill, noting, “There are some really good things in the package, and there are some things that we aren’t too crazy about. Overall, we think it is a fair package of bills.”

The package of bills passed in the House of Representatives by a vote of 300-119 on Dec. 4, and the Senate is expected to vote on the NDAA on Dec. 9.

Packaged bills

The package of public lands bills includes four Wyoming bills, several wilderness bills, new parks, expansion of parks and other authorizations. 

“We are quite pleased with what is there and what it allows us to build from in the future,” McNiven noted. “The public lands package has eight or so bills.”

He also noted that there are a number of pro-jobs bills for timber and mining industries.

Just over 200,000 acres of wilderness is designated in the package, but of that, McNiven noted, “The majority are already wilderness study areas and the majority of those are in Nevada.”

He continued, “We’ve also been much more careful with those designations – be it a park, wilderness or scenic river – to make boundaries mean something.”

McNiven commented that buffer zones have been eliminated, which serves to increase private property protections.

Also included in the package is the Grazing Improvement Act (GIA), which has been an area of focus by Wyoming congressional delegation and the Public Lands Council for a long time. 

Grazing Act

Dustin Van Liew, executive director of the Public Lands Council, said, “Section 3023 of the NDAA consists of GIA provisions to amend Federal Land Policy Management Act (FLPMA), including codifying the ‘grazing rider,’ which will allow for permits to be reissued under the same terms and conditions uninterrupted when permits expire while any agency analysis is being conducted.”

Van Liew also noted that FLMPA would be amended to provide statutory authority for categorically excluding grazing decisions from the National Environmental Policy Act where current grazing management continues and the land is meeting applicable range health standards. 

“The language would also apply to any environmental analysis to the ground, as opposed to permits, and allow multiple allotments to be analyzed at a time, making the entire grazing program work more efficiently,” Van Liew noted. 

He continued, “Finally, the language provides for the sole discretion of the Secretaries to set the priority and timing of environmental analysis completion regarding grazing permit decisions based on environmental significance and funding.”

Of particular importance is the removal of detrimental language regarding grazing permit retirement that was included during markup in the Senate process, Van Liew added.

Industry reactions

Wyoming’s industry has expressed positive reactions from the news about the Grazing Improvement Act. 

Dick Loper of the Wyoming State Grazing Board commented, “The Senate Committee took out most of the things that were objectionable to the livestock industry.”

At the same time, he continued that many of the things that the livestock industry has needed for many years are included. 

“Overall, it is a positive addition to the statutory authority on federal lands,” Loper continued. “We think this will help BLM be much more efficient in the permit renewal process.”

He further noted, however, that though the language appears to be positive for the industry, the actual implementation of the GIA will depend on the interpretation of the law by BLM.

“The positive provisions of the GIA that were included in the House NDAA bill are very important to Wyoming’s sheep industry,” said Amy Hendrickson, executive director of the Wyoming Wool Growers Association. “This includes the GIA language to amend FLPMA and codify the grazing rider, as well as the language that allows for the application of environmental analysis to allotments rather than the permits and provides for both grazing permit decisions and trailing and crossing decisions to be categorically excluded from the National Environmental Policy Act.”

“In addition, we are very pleased with the removal of the detrimental GIA language regarding grazing permit retirement that had been included during the Senate process,” Hendrickson continued.
Van Liew urged all producers to contact their Senators and ask them to support the NDAA and GIA provisions, as the Senate is expected to vote on the issue on Dec. 9.

McNiven added, “At this point we are excited and optimistic about the possibility of seeing the public lands package with the GIA come home.”

Loper added, “I’d like to thank our congressional delegation, especially Senator Barrasso and his staff, for all their work on this bill.” 


Defense act

The public lands package of bills is part of the NDAA, which seems strange for some people. 

“Some folks have said that public lands have no place in a National Defense Authorization Act, but the Committees of Jurisdiction opened the door to the process because they wanted military bases to be able to expand and take in BLM and public land,” Travis McNiven, legislative assistant to Senator John Barrasso, explained. “That started the public lands discussion as it related to the military.”

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

On March 7 the House Agriculture Committee sent a letter to House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) outlining the committee’s budget recommendations for the agencies and programs under its jurisdiction for fiscal year 2013.
    Ag Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Oklahoma) and Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-Minnesota) signed the bipartisan document, which acknowledges the need for deficit reduction while warning of excessive cuts to vital farm programs.
    “The Committee on Agriculture is dedicated to ensuring the federal government continues to promote policies and risk management tools that will keep American agriculture and rural communities strong and our citizens healthy and safe,” wrote the Congressmen.
    The committee’s primary focus this year will be reauthorization of the Farm Bill, which expires Sept. 30. Last fall the committee proposed $23 billion in Farm Bill savings, including $15 billion from commodity programs, $6 billion from conservation programs and $4 billion from nutrition.
    “Expiring unfunded livestock disaster programs would have been extended but fully paid for in recognition of the extreme drought conditions facing many livestock producers around the country,” the authors wrote.
    Some key points from the letter include:
    Crop insurance, which they say has become a “cornerstone of risk management in agriculture for a great many producers.”
    “One area of consensus that seems to be forming is to simplify and improve conservation programs,” they wrote, saying the committee wants to streamline programs designed to help producers avoid regulation or come into compliance.
    The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as Food Stamps, is the largest program under the committee’s jurisdiction, and SNAP spending has tripled in the last 10 years, to an annual $700 billion today.
    In contrast to many other mandatory funding policies, spending on farm policy has declined significantly.
    “Another way to reduce the deficit is to grow the economy,” says the committee. “Regulations appear to be promulgated in spite of potential negative real-world economic consequences that could undermine U.S. producers’ ability to produce the world’s safest, most abundant and most affordable food and fiber supply.”
    A view that the strong agricultural economy justifies cutting agricultural programs even further ignores lessons from history, says the committee.
    “The ag economy is highly cyclical, and having sound farm policy in place is vital not just for producers but for the entire national economy,” they wrote.
    During some of the worst economic times in the last 50 years, agriculture has served as a catalyst for economic growth, says the letter. Last year, U.S. farmers and ranchers produced $410 billion on goods and spent $227 billion to purchase inputs. They made $65 billion in rent payments, paid $24 billion in wages and spent $15 billion on interest and financing.
    “While agriculture would be the 25th largest economy based on the value of good purchased alone if it were its own country, the farm safety net now constitutes less than one quarter of one percent of the federal budget,” wrote the committee.
    “Recognizing the dire fiscal situation the country is in, we developed a bipartisan farm bill proposal last fall that would have contributed substantially to deficient reduction…That process has given the committee the information needed to write a farm bill that is more efficient and streamlined and that consolidates duplicative policies,” concludes the letter.
    Christy Martinez is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
Cody – “The H2A program is challenging, and it is broken,” said Mountain States Agriculture Service Executive Director Kelly Griffith at the 2012 Summer Meeting of the Western Association of State Departments of Agriculture (WASDA) meeting on July 16-19.
    Griffith addressed WASDA members to inform them on the obstacles that the program creates and the challenges that producers face in attempting to bring in workers.
    “There is a need for this program,” Griffith added. “There is a reason this program has been utilized even when it wasn’t successful – H2A is the only viable option for a legal agriculture workforce.”
Satisfaction with H2A
    In a survey conducted by the National Association of Agriculture Employers (NAAE), 47 percent of employers responded that in 2010, they were not at all satisfied with the program and 42 percent said they would not participate again because of administrative burdens and cost.
    Additionally, employers using H2A cited $320 million in economic losses.
    “The losses are due to the fact that they don’t know if they are going to get workers, and if they are going to, they don’t know when they will get them,” explainsed Griffith. “With livestock workers, we have more leeway than those raising crops. Farmers need workers there when their crops are ready.”
    “On average, a worker is delayed by 22 days,” she continued. “The sheepherders I bring in from Peru are generally delayed for well over a month, and I have producers facing four month delays.”
    With the lack of assurances in the program to guarantee workers when they are needed, Griffith mentioned that there is need for reform.
Program demands
    Another stumbling block that producers face is the constant demands of the program.
    “The program wants to know exactly where the workers will be going and on what day,” Griffith said. “They are narrowing the ability of producers to manage their own business and increasing costs. These demands keep going up.”
    Along with the demands of the program, Griffith mentioned that the program is also not providing the help it was intended to provide.
    One stipulation of the program is that producers attempt to hire U.S. workers and advertising for positions must be done in a daily print source. Recently, a change has been made eliminating the requirement for sheepherders.
    “Mountain Plains Agriculture Service spent $99,000 on advertising in 2010, and I would be shocked if that yielded five qualified U.S. applicants,” said Griffith, noting challenges and cost-prohibitive advertising requirement. “Very few U.S. workers apply, very few are qualified, and, in the survey by NAAE, of those hired, only three percent finished their contracts.”
    H2A also requires that preference be given to U.S. workers, who, more often than not, do not fulfill their contracts.
    When U.S. workers don’t complete a job or quit in the middle of a season, Griffith added that employers are left with a four-month process to find an H2A worker.
    “It is a constant cycle of delays,” she noted.
Penalties
    “One of the most frightening things is that Wage and Hour seems to be targeting H2A employers,” Griffith commented, noting that expensive fines and increasing audits make some producers nervous.
    Eight percent of surveyed producers reported that they were audited prior to joining the H2A program. However, after joining, 35 percent reported being audited.
    Two types of audits can be imposed on employers: a paperwork audit or a Wage and Hour audit.
    “The paperwork audits require an immense amount of paperwork,” she explained. “The Wage and Hour audits involve investigators showing up at the place of employment. Employers are more than happy to cooperate, and they want to be open and honest, but the prevailing attitude is that Wage and Hour has an agenda.”
    Griffith cited two Wyoming producers in the same area that were fined $54,000 and $13,000, respectively, for the same infractions and neither was given the opportunity to correct the problem before receiving fines.
    “There is very much a lack of consistency and a lack of communication within the agency,” Griffith said. “One investigator even said that enforcement of the rules is subject to interpretation – that is the scare our employers face while they try to work at complying.”
Changing rules
    A similarly concerning issue is that while regulations may not change, the interpretation of regulations does vary. For example, Griffith looked at the three-year limit imposed on sheepherders in 2009.
    “Until three years ago, sheepherders were not subject to a maximum three-year stay. In January 2009, that limit was imposed on sheepherders,” she explained. “Our employers planned so as to adhere to the rules.”
    In the rules, a clause about interrupted stay was interpreted such that when a worker left the U.S. and later returned, the three-year time period started over.
    “Some employers sent their workers home for 60 or 70 days, thinking that they would be in the clear for another three years,” Griffith continued.  “However, when we started getting notices telling employers that their workers had to go home.”
    After nearly two months, the Department of Labor clarified that the interrupted stay clause, under their new interpretation, did not re-start the three-year time limit, but only paused it.
    “The employers had to send their workers home during lambing seasons, for example, that they had tried to plan for,” she says. “It wasn’t a change in regulation, it was merely a change in interpretation, and a very sudden change that we had to deal with.”
Special procedures
    Griffith also mentioned that the H2A program operates under special procedures provisions, which is a policy rather than regulation.
    “In 2010 they added a regulations stating that they can change special procedures without stakeholder input,” she said, “and they came out with multiple changes.”
    While some changes were positive, Griffith noted that insignificant changes can mean large changes for employers
    “From the standpoint of a solution, one hasn’t been identified,” Griffith said.
    Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Conflicting regulations
    While Kelly Griffith, Mountain States Agriculture Service executive director, mentioned that some conflicting regulations are seen between federal agencies or state laws and the Department of Labor regarding the H2A program and its enforcement.
    “For example, the Forest Service now mandates that producers must have two guys at camp for safety and fire hazard issues, but you can only have one camp,” said Griffith. “H2A says you can only house two men in one wagon for a couple of days, and producers must request a variance.”
    For the variance to go through, it may take up to six months.
    One audience member added that in some cases, state laws conflict with Department of Labor policies, forcing producers to choose with which regulations to comply.


Cheyenne – On May 4 representatives from Wyoming’s ranching and farming industries appeared in Cheyenne to share their perspectives with the eight members of the U.S. House of Representatives Agriculture Committee.
According to the Committee, the hearing was to “review U.S. agriculture policy in advance of the 2012 Farm Bill.” Comments also focused on the bark beetle epidemic in the West.
“As a rancher, and the first Wyoming Representative to serve on the House Agriculture Committee since 1941, I am pleased the committee chose Cheyenne for its hearing to address the devastation to our forests caused by the bark beetle, and help shape the upcoming Farm Bill,” said Wyoming’s Representative Cynthia Lummis of the hearing.
Ogden Driskill of Devil’s Tower, Dennis Sun of Casper and John Snyder of Worland testified on conservation easements, technical assistance from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and U.S. sugar policy, respectively.
As a sixth-generation rancher from northeast Wyoming, Driskill said he’s spent his life watching ranches break up, divide and disappear.
“In the last Farm Bill you enhanced the Farm and Ranchlands Protection Program (FRPP), and that’s a phenomenal program for ranches. It’s working, and working well,” Driskill told the Committee.
Driskill emphasized that although federal funding for conservation easements can seem pricey, it’s a one-time expense. “I encourage you to continue to fund FRPP. You can see what’s happening through the West to our ranch lands, and if we don’t have the tools to work with, we won’t have anything for the other farm programs, because we won’t have farms left.”
Driskill said ag land trusts have done a fine job of administering the easements, but he encouraged the Congressmen to make the rules more flexible.
“The longer programs like this go, the more flexibility you need. It’s hard to write in-depth rules for the long term,” he explained.
“Private lands through the West encompass some of the prime land, which is at the highest risk and is the toughest to protect,” he continued, noting that for every dollar the federal government spends on conservation of private lands, six dollars of public benefit are returned.
Turning to U.S. sugarbeet production, Snyder, president of the Washakie Beet Growers Association, said his family has farmed in Wyoming for over 70 years, and he and his wife have farmed sugarbeets, malt barley, corn, alfalfa and alfalfa seed for over 20.
“For over a century the beet and sugar industry has played an important economic role in the mountain region of Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska and Montana,” said Snyder. “Today there are two beet companies operating six beet sugar factories in our region.”
In 2002 the sugarbeet growers in Washakie County purchased the Worland factory, which is today’s Wyoming Sugar Company. At that same time 1,000 regional producers purchased their company, forming Western Sugar Cooperative, which is now based in Denver, Colo. and owns and operates five factories in the four-state area.
“Our two companies produce 13 percent of U.S. sugarbeets on 135,800 acres with 1,500 full-time factory and seasonal jobs,” said Snyder “we’re good at what we do, and we’re among lowest cost producers in the world, and we’ve achieved that by being fair to our workers and responsible stewards of the land.”
Snyder noted that the U.S. is one of the most open sugar markets in the world, with guaranteed access for 41 countries, as required under trade laws. “Trade agreements such as WTO and CAFTA force the U.S. to provide duty-free access for 1.4 million short tons of sugar per year, whether we need it or not,” he said. “In addition, under NAFTA Mexico now enjoys unlimited access to the U.S. market.”
Snyder said these concessions could reduce even farther U.S. sugar producers’ access to their own market. “They could reduce prices and make it impossible for many of us to survive,” he continued. “In the 2008 Farm Bill sugar policy worked to benefit consumers with zero cost to taxpayers while giving sugar farmers the chance to survive.”
Under the 2008 Farm Bill’s market balancing approach, Snyder said the USDA retained authority to limit domestic sales of sugar. “Producers who exceed the allotments must now store the excess at their own expense, and if imports exceed the difference between domestic sugar allotments and consumption, USDA will divert the surplus sugar to fuel ethanol production and restore balance to the sugar market for food.”
While that provision is in place, Snyder said it hasn’t yet been needed, and forecasters expect it won’t be over the course of the current Farm Bill.
“The current Farm Bill’s benefits to American sugar consumers and taxpayers are clear,” Snyder told the Committee. “American food manufacturers and consumers can count on reliable sugar supplies that have been produced responsibly and are reasonably priced, high in quality and safe to consume. U.S. wholesale and retail prices are below the average of the rest of the developed world, and have declined substantially over last three decades.”
“Sugar is the only major commodity program that operates at no cost to tax payers, and government projections through 2020 say it will remain at no cost,” said Snyder. “American sugar farmers are grateful to Congress for crafting sugar policy that balances supply and demand, ensuring consumers have dependable, high quality supplies and improving market prospects for producers.”
Of the assertion by Casper rancher Dennis Sun that technical assistance from the NRCS has diminished, Rep. Lummis asked what types of projects are affected. Sun answered he thinks all of them are.
“In a sense, a lot of the NRCS people are now relegated to salesmen sitting in the office. If you’re selling a car, you have got to get out and look at the car to sell it. In this case, they have to get out on the ground, because each project is different,” said Sun, whose complete testimony can be found beginning on Page 2 of this edition of the Roundup.
To find complete written testimony provided by the witnesses, visit agriculture.house.gov/hearings/index.html. Christy Hemken is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..