Feb 6, 2018Ag secretary talks of options for labor reform
Growers may feel discouraged about ag labor policy, but the country’s top agriculture official is upbeat about the future.
During a Feb. 1 visit to Michigan, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue discussed legislative work that’s shaping the conversation about the county’s agricultural resources.
“Obviously, in this area in agriculture, you have a lot of seasonal crops, specialty crops,” he said. “Agricultural labor is an issue in that way. We want to make a safe, legal agricultural workforce for America. The president understands that. Whether or not we can get those agricultural provisions into this immigration discussion that’s going on here now remains to be seen, but the president is aware.”
The day that Perdue was sworn into office, President Trump signed the executive order “Promoting Agriculture and Rural Prosperity in America.”
Perdue went to work with 22 federal agencies and since has delivered to the White House a list of actionable items.
“Our vision for the USDA is not a lot different from what the president outlined in his broad principles. We talk about ‘safe, strong and proud’ — that’s American agriculture to me,” Perdue said.
Phil Carter, a tart cherry, apple and asparagus grower from New Era, Michigan, told the secretary about his own issues with labor.
“You hit the nail on the head, that we have a very serious problem with labor. From my standpoint, it’s very tough to find help, good help is impossible to find, and current regulations given the inactivity of Congress … are going to put us out of business. Why should we raise it if we can’t harvest it?”
Surges in ag technology are impressive, but handpicked harvesting remains the reality, especially for apples and cherries.
“We haven’t found a good way to mechanically harvest them,” Carter said. “If we could, we would.”
Before answering the question, Perdue addressed of the other dynamic of the labor problem, almost unspoken though universally acknowledged by the group of farmers.
“I’m not sure the media understands to a degree: You would love to hire local labor if that were available. But we cannot find Americans to do the work there, even from seasonal to whatever. You just can’t do it. I don’t care what you’re paying out there.
“We had a program early on where the governor out in Georgia thought we could get probationers out there harvesting some of these vegetable crops, tomatoes and some other things. …About halfway through the second day, they said, ‘Can we just go back to prison?’ “I’m afraid we’re either going to import our labor or import our food, and that’s the challenge we have here.”
In answering the question, Perdue re-emphasized that Trump understood “the need for a legal ag workforce, foreign-born in that regard,” but that ag labor wasn’t the only issue on the table.
“There’s so much controversy regarding the current legal immigration discussion right now,” he said. The secretary then pointed toward what he saw as promising legislation,
The Agricultural Guestworker Act introduced by U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
“Chairman Goodlatte of the Judiciary Committee in the House has a program to kind of modernize or replace the H-2A program, which as you probably know is almost unworkable for many people,” Perdue said. “And with an H-2C program, it would put the primary responsibility of labor, under the USDA.”
After the public presentation, VGN asked Perdue about grower concerns that the Goodlatte bill would cap the number of allowed guest workers at a number too low to meet growers’ needs.
“It will cap guest worker numbers, but there’s no cap now; there’s no ability for a legal agricultural workforce,” Perdue said. “The H-2A program has been very onerous and unworkable in many ways. The Goodlatte bill, while it doesn’t go as far as we like, he got as much as he could out of the committee, and while it’s capped, we think it does have some indexing from a need perspective and its better than nothing. So, we like the progress and we hope it can be part of our immigration discussions as we go forward.”
There was a recurring theme in the breakfast Q&A session: Perdue would say he understood the challenges of growing, and then give an update on new proposed policies. Finally, he would give growers some hope for the future.
He said trends suggested America could play a pivotal role in addressing food shortages around the world.
“We need to be prepared to feed the world, particularly when you look at the population growth going forward in the future,” Perdue said. “We have to produce more food in the next 30 years than we have throughout American history, to feed all of the growing world.
“This is a bountiful country that can produce that and the world is going to depend on the American farmer more and more as we go forward.”
— Stephen Kloosterman, Assistant Editor
Top: U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, center-left, shakes the hand of Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development Director Jamie Clover Adams as he arrives Robinette’s Apple Haus & Winery near Grand Rapids, Michigan for a breakfast event sponsored by Michigan Farm Bureau. Photos: Stephen Kloosterman