Ron Gibson: It’s time to modernize our farm workforce to ensure America’s food security

A serious labor shortage is hurting our food supply and driving up costs.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jose Salud Ibarra Diaz, a longtime H-2A farm worker for Steve Pettingill, picks peaches, Thursday, July 28, 2022.

One-hundred and seventy-five years ago, the Mormon pioneers came to the Salt Lake Valley with one thing on their mind: What are we going to eat this winter?

Today, many have this same concern, not only here in Utah but across the country. Ever since the COVID pandemic, we’ve been facing a food and dairy supply-chain crisis in the U.S. Increasingly, store shelves are empty and the prices of milk, cheese, eggs and other American staples have increased, putting the squeeze on low- and middle-income families.

According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, grocery bills are rising at the swiftest pace in more than 40 years. With Thanksgiving around the corner, the price of a frozen turkey is up 73% since 2021.

There’s another worrying aspect to this: When it comes to food production, we’re losing our global competitive edge. The USDA just reported that the U.S. is on track to become a net importer of agricultural goods for the first time in our history. And that’s not good.

A big part of the problem is labor shortage. Having worked on my farm my whole life, I’m seeing labor shortages that are just unreal. It has been so difficult to find employees, no matter the wage we pay, and it’s changing the way we do business.

I have 1,500 cows and we grow a lot of vegetables, but we have had to adjust what crops we grow because of the difficulty in getting enough workers. If these conditions continue, it makes it harder to provide the local food and other things needed for the people who live here in Utah and across the country.

Where American workers are unwilling or unavailable, workers from other countries have provided crucial support to American agriculture through what are called H-2A visas. These hardworking, reliable men and women who come here for work do a great job, and then return home to their families in other countries. The H-2A program is critical, but it doesn’t work like it could.

That’s why I’m calling on the U.S. Senate to get behind legislation to modernize the H-2A visa application process and create a long-term solution that helps immigrant farm workers, local farmers and ranchers, and consumers like you and I at the same time.

This past summer, I joined the American Business Immigration Coalition Action, four Republican congressmen and partners across agriculture for a press event at the U.S. Capitol where we released research from Texas A&M International University showing that allowing more migrant and H-2A visa workers is strongly related to combating inflation and lowering food prices for American families trying to put food on the table.

In 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act with bipartisan support. That was a good start, and now Sens. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, have taken the lead on negotiating needed improvements on the House’s solutions in order to move the process forward.

We simply can’t keep kicking the can down the road. We desperately need legislation that’ll spare dairy and other farmers from having to re-apply for the very same workers every season, as current law requires, which takes up far too much of our money and time. We need a system that lets us simply retain our best workers whom we’ve put a lot of time, money, and effort into training.

They’re terrific people, they become part of our families and we support these workers earning an adjustment of legal status in the U.S. in exchange for the hard work they do for us and for American food security.

In short, we need a system that is both food-security-minded and fair to workers. We need to provide farmers and ranchers access to a legal and stable workforce for agriculture’s needs now and in the future.

By addressing workforce shortages facing farm employers and stabilizing the H-2A visa application process, Congress can address inflation, lower food prices, ensure grocery store shelves remain stocked and enhance our national food security by protecting domestic agriculture production. Reform to our immigration and guest worker program is long overdue.

With the Senate’s help in passing sensible farm worker solutions, Americans can relax knowing their food supply is safe and finally stop asking “What are we going to eat this winter?”

Ron Gibson is a sixth generation dairy farmer who serves as president of the Utah Farm Bureau Federation.