Some farm groups and Republican lawmakers are criticizing USDA for its decision to partner with United Farm Workers, a labor union, on a pilot project.
In June, USDA said it had plans for a $65 million pilot project aimed at securing a more stable H-2A workforce for agricultural employers and improving working conditions for farmworkers.
The first part of the project, according to USDA, is supposed to "address challenges" within the H-2A visa program.
The second part involves funding agricultural employers to boost health and safety standards for workers.
Funding comes from the American Rescue Plan, which Congress passed last year.
For the project, USDA said it is partnering with United Farm Workers, or UFW. The union's role is to provide technical assistance and information about "challenges faced by agricultural workers."
According to a USDA spokeswoman, the partnership formed after the labor union came to USDA with an unsolicited proposal for a pilot project.
The partnership, however, has provoked criticism.
In a recent letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, 10 Republican members of Congress expressed unease about the partnership, writing that while they appreciate that USDA recognizes the need for agricultural labor reform, they're concerned about UFW's role.
"UFW is an openly partisan advocacy organization that has a long history of actively lobbying for drastic changes in agriculture labor policy at every level of government, including during the Biden administration," the letter stated.
The lawmakers questioned UFW's ability to objectively assist and accurately inform USDA due to the union's alleged bias and the fact that the union represents only a small portion of total farmworkers in the U.S.
Elizabeth Strater, UFW's director of strategic campaigns, said UFW members have a history of improving employees' working conditions, partnering with employers and negotiating bipartisan agreements.
On the pilot program, Strater said, the union "looks forward to working with any and all willing agricultural employers, grower associations, unions, farmworker organizations and members of Congress."
The American Farm Bureau Federation told the Capital Press its members are concerned that USDA has chosen to engage with the union rather than with agricultural employers to develop the new pilot program.
"We don't yet know what the parameters of this pilot program will be, but it is concerning USDA has not sought to involve the farmer perspective in the same manner (it has) involved the union," a Farm Bureau spokeswoman said.
She said the Farm Bureau, however, knows little about the program or USDA's plans to involve other groups.
A USDA spokeswoman said the agency fully intends to seek input from other groups besides UFW to develop the pilot program, including from grower organizations and farmers.
The spokeswoman said USDA continues to urge the U.S. Senate to pass the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which would provide a path to legal status for farmworkers and update the H-2A system. In the meantime, she said, USDA is pursuing the pilot project.
"Without congressional action to address these challenges, USDA is doing what it can to make progress now to address labor challenges in agriculture, ensure both domestic and H-2A workers have access to good jobs and help secure a stable workforce for the agricultural industry," she said.