May 20, 2011
American ag needs a sustainable workforce

I have been following several online discussions about agriculture, food production and other issues recently. One of the most used words I see is “sustainability.” The interesting thing about this term is that it seems to have a different meaning depending on which group is using it. In fact, everyone seems to be able to use it to satisfy their own definition.

These drawn out and passionate discussions on sustainability in our industry are often interesting, can be intellectually stimulating – but all too often miss the most important points. We are part of a world whose population continues to grow rapidly, with the fastest growth in places where a growing percentage of people do not have enough to eat. This results in civil unrest and/or migration to places where there is the opportunity to earn one’s daily bread, literally.
Throughout human history, people have not voluntarily sat in one place to starve quietly!

In America today, we have not just enough food but, according to many, too much. The imbalance between a North America with abundant food and starvation in much of the rest of the world is not sustainable. The result has been migration to the United States, where jobs are available and migrants can feed themselves. I know it is all more complicated than that, but in the end, most people move here to assure their families can eat regularly.

I will leave the debate on sustainable agriculture – defined by many as small farmers using low-technology methods and growing food for local consumption – to others for now. I will also leave the debate on “fair exchange” and the definitions of “local” and “natural” for others. Instead, let’s talk about the sustainability of U.S. political policy on domestic agriculture.
Because I cannot adequately define “sustainable,” let’s focus on what is un-sustainable about our current labor policies and practices in agriculture.

The idea that the needs of labor-intensive agriculture should, or can, be served only by domestic American workers is an un-sustainable pipe dream. Even in economic bad times, this idea just does not wash; in strong economies it becomes even more remote.

Labor is the engine that drives much of specialty agriculture. Most fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy, nursery and livestock production do not lend themselves readily to mechanization and require numbers and exertions not sustainable if forced to compete with non-agricultural, year-round job opportunities that are located closer to where people live.

Rural America is increasingly de-populated. Rural towns increasingly lack the infrastructure required to maintain the large year-round populations needed to maintain the domestic workforces that are needed to grow our food. Some suggest encouraging the unemployed, or underemployed, to move from cities and suburbs to rural areas to work on farms. Some even suggest forcing these movements. China did that during its cultural revolution in the 1960s. The result for China has been crushing rural poverty and low agricultural productivity, resulting in current policies to encourage larger, more efficient farms in order to better feed themselves and increase food exports.

Meanwhile, the United States continues to have agricultural labor shortages, which have become a magnet for those in other countries looking for economic opportunity.

Despite these realities, our Congress is likely to precipitate a crisis for labor-intensive agriculture by legislating mandatory use of the federal E-Verification system before the end of this year. This mandate, in the face of increased penalties and enforcement and coupled with a broken and inadequate federal agricultural worker program, could push domestic food production into un-sustainable waters as early as 2012!

We continue to work to educate our elected officials that the labor-intensive agriculture that provides the food Americans and everyone else must eat is different from the kind of agriculture that produces corn, soybeans and other commodity crops. One is not better than the other, but the needs and realities are very different. From the labor and immigration policy standpoint, what is sustainable to one may be completely un-sustainable to the other.

Labor-intensive agriculture does not have the alternative of simply covering more acres with larger machinery. It is un-sustainable for labor-intensive, domestic agriculture to continue to face increasingly restrictive legislation, increasingly aggressive enforcement and increasingly aggressive penalties that include more and more criminal charges against farmers. If these un-sustainable trends continue, we will accelerate and encourage the movement of our food production to countries where the labor and political climates are considered to be sustainable by farmers.

America needs you, your family, your employees and the next generation of agriculture working and growing food for the world. American agriculture needs you, your family, your employees, your suppliers and buyers and others all working together to educate our elected officials to set sustainable legislative priorities for American food production. Today, more than ever, the infighting and rivalry that is too common inside the agricultural family must be set aside to assure the future generations of American agriculture. That is sustainability!

By Frank Gasperini, National Council of Agricultural Employers

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