Duvall: Biggest problem facing agriculture is lack of labor

Congress must reform the guestworker program to ensure there are enough workers on the farm to produce America’s food, said the president of the largest U.S. farm group on Sunday.

“It’s the biggest limiting factor that American agriculture has,” said president Zippy Duvall at the American Farm Bureau Federation convention in Salt Lake City.

“Now we recognize the political environment is difficult in Washington, D.C. On Capitol Hill we cannot afford to wait for action on this important issue,” said Duvall. Reform of the H-2A visa program, which now provides seasonal workers, should allow year-round workers and it should set wages at a more affordable level for employers instead of the federally set rate that is galloping out of reach, he said.

Duvall also called for passage of a new farm bill that provides “an updated safety net” that takes into account rising costs of production and the impact of inflation on the price of supplies. In addition, the AFBF is seeking a congressional override of California’s Proposition 12 animal welfare law, said AFBF officials.

Lawmakers have clashed for years over comprehensive immigration reform and there are few signs of agreement with the presidential election on the horizon. The House passed a bipartisan ag labor bill in March 2021, with provisions to modernize the H-2A system and to give legal status to undocumented farmworkers, but it died in the Senate in 2022. The AFBF opposed the bill.

Half of U.S. farmworkers are believed to be undocumented and many of them are reaching retirement age. For years, farmers have reported difficulty in recruiting workers for physically demanding work in the fields and handling livestock.

“Because of the pandemic, the high inflation, rising costs of production, and disruptions around the globe, we need a new farm bill that provides an updated safety net to address those challenges,” said Duvall during a news conference. “Congress must also work on the guestworker program. We need a solution that meets the demands for both year-round and seasonal workers. We need a wage rate … that compensates workers fairly and also keep our farms economically sustainable.”

The AFBF is among farm groups that want the farm bill to include higher reference prices, a key factor in calculating crop subsidies. Lawmakers have deadlocked for months over the idea. An increase would be expensive, and the most immediate way to pay for it would be to raid the $20 billion in climate funds. Senate Agriculture chairwoman Debbie Stabenow has rejected that idea.

“We heard loud and clear from out members … that that is a priority,” said Sam Keiffer, the AFBF’s lead lobbyist, when asked what AFBF wanted on reference prices.

Farm groups and their allies in Congress have been resolute in pushing for higher reference prices. By one estimate, a 10-percent increase in reference prices would cost $20 billion and a 20-percent increase would cost $50 billion.

It’s difficult to negotiate legislation when farm groups have been reluctant to spell out their goals but will not yield on them, said an agriculture lobbyist who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They’re living in la-la land.”

To read Duvall’s speech to AFBF members, click here.