As many Michigan farms and ag businesses struggle with labor shortages, one Hoosier ag leader continues to push lawmakers on Capitol Hill to pass legislation that may offer a solution.
“Labor has quickly taken over as the number one challenge facing cooperatives and farmers,” according to Chuck Conner, President and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives (NCFC).
Conner had previously served as both Acting Secretary and Deputy Secretary of the USDA during the administration of President George W. Bush.
Two years ago, the U.S. House passed The Farm Workforce Modernization Act, a bipartisan bill that would have expanded the length of time that immigrant workers with H-2A visas are allowed to stay and work in the U.S. However, the Senate version of that bill—The Affordable and Secure Food Act of 2022—failed to pass late last year, which also killed the corresponding House bill.
“The legislation didn’t fail because of anything of substance. It failed because of the controversy over border issues and the whole immigration space that isn’t particularly targeted at farm labor,” says Conner. “We were sort of caught up in all of that, so we’re going to be continuing to look for the opportunity when maybe that controversy is settled down a little bit and it gives us the opportunity to come in and fix this H-2A program.”
Many ag groups and businesses, including the Indiana State Poultry Association, Indiana Dairy Producers, and Co-Alliance Cooperative, were supportive of the legislation to not only fill workforce shortages, but to also save time and money on training and replenishing new workers.
Conner says he’s concerned that ongoing farm labor shortages will hurt the country’s ag economy.
“There aren’t very many dairy barns in America today that can operate strictly on family labor. If you’re having to hire virtually any labor today, about the only option for you is to look potentially at foreign labor coming in. With the current challenges that we face in the H-2A program—for many, that’s just not an option,” says Conner.
He adds that the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives is continuing to push lawmakers on Capitol Hill to revisit and pass legislation to revise and expand the H-2A visa work program.
“For all practical purposes, it is the only solution for co-ops and the only solution for farmers going forward,” says Conner. “We have to figure out a way to make it an option going forward if we are to continue to provide the food and fiber for America in the manner which they become quite accustomed to.”
Click below to hear C.J. Miller’s radio news story for Michigan Ag Today.