Growers must rally around reform
Some agricultural groups see a window of opportunity for Congress to address the labor problems that, if ignored, threaten the well-being of the industry.
"The industry will not be able to pick the crop without a solution. Acres in the ground and tonnage are increasing," said Dale Foreman, a member of the Washington Apple Commission, recent chairman of the U.S. Apple Association and owner of 2,000-acre Foreman Fruit Co. in Wenatchee, Wash.
For the past two years, apple growers and many others who depend on hand work have scrambled as the supply of labor shrank by as much as 20 percent.
The dairy industry faces a similar struggle to attract and keep employees, but cannot use the H-2A guestworker visa that other farmers use.
The question is whether Congress, whose members seem to have a short attention span when it comes to difficult issues, will take the time and political capital it will require to make progress on the basket of labor issues that awaits them.
Here's a rundown of the problems that fall under labor issues:
* H-2A program. This temporary guestworker program should provide all of the labor any industry could ever need. It doesn't, primarily because it is spread among three federal departments, none of which seem to be willing to take ownership of it. As a result it is unnecessarily expensive and complicated.
Ironically, Canada has had an effective and smoothly running guestworker program for more than two decades, but the U.S. bureaucracy hasn't managed to solve the puzzle.
* Immigration reform. Everyone agrees on one point: U.S. borders need to be regulated to prevent illegal entry. The problem arises over how to do it. And what, exactly, does Congress plan to do about the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in the U.S.? That is a longstanding problem no one in Congress has been able to resolve.
Those issues alone threaten to keep Congress tied in knots. The only hope for agriculture is to approach the Capitol with a broad-based united front and specific solutions that Congress can accept.
Just this fall the American Farm Bureau Federation, a national agricultural organization, has come up with a framework for a limited ag-only work authorization for undocumented workers. Though some groups view it with skepticism, others see hope in a plan that is national in scope.
That the Farm Bureau has thrown its weight behind the effort to find a congressional solution is in itself a huge step forward. If other groups can work with the Farm Bureau to develop a united front, Congress will not be able to ignore the issue.
Assuring an adequate work force for farms across the nation is not a Republican issue or a Democratic issue. It's not a liberal issue or a conservative issue either.
It is an American issue.