Ag labor hearing dissects immigration issues in the food supply chain


Ag labor hearing dissects immigration issues in the food supply chain

U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack pleaded with the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday to find a labor solution that works for agricultural producers, processors, and workers.

“Immigrant labor comes in and does the difficult, challenging work that the rest of us is not interesting in doing, they do it well, and they have the notion of being able to supply a better opportunity for a better life for their family,” he says.  “We need to figure out something that allows them to have that connection to their family that the rest of us enjoy every single day.”

Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, chairman of the committee, testified on the importance of immigrant labor in the food supply chain and how essential workers have become even more important through COVID-19, even though about half of farmworkers are undocumented and fear deportation. “It is an embarrassment to this great nation that we allow this injustice to continue—we in the Senate can change it,” he urged.  “We can pass legislation that will not only keep hard-working families together but also strengthen the durability and resiliency of food our food chain.”

Ranking Member Chuck Grassley of Iowa says clearly there is still a border crisis and it’s unfortunate that many farmworkers are undocumented at the same time the H-2A program isn’t working.  “The primary focus from any such proposal should be reforming the H-2A program to ensure that farmers and employers have access to a stable and legal workforce,” he says. Grassley is calling to streamline the H-2A program allowing for year-round workers, along with reducing costs and red tape.

Illinois dairy farmer Linnea Kooistra says as farms have increased, so has the need for more labor.  Her farm turned to immigrant labor 20 years ago. “I can decisively say that the domestic workers just aren’t there, even with good pay and good benefits,” she stressed.  “Our dairy farming friends say that the situation has gotten worse.” Kooistra says family farms are in crisis mode trying to find enough labor to continue. She and the National Milk Producers Federation urged for a yearlong H-2A program, action by Congress to reform the program, and earned legal status for farmworkers.

Vilsack, along with many other panelists including the National Pork Producers Council, asked the committee to support the bipartisan, House-passed Farm Workforce Modernization Act.