With the midterm elections over, policymakers setting the agenda for the next Congress should keep in mind one important fact: America’s immigration system needs work. This is a statement that most Americans and, in particular, most of America’s farmers and ranchers, can heartily agree with. Inaction in Washington has brought us to this point, and it will take action from our elected leaders to start us on the path to a solution.

For many in agriculture, the biggest challenge they face is finding the workers they need to run their farms and ranches. After all, it does not matter what Mother Nature throws at you if you do not have people to help pick crops or care for animals through good years and bad. This is a challenge faced by lettuce growers in California, dairy farmers in New York, nursery owners in North Carolina, citrus growers in Florida and all farms from coast to coast.

It is an issue that impacts communities far beyond the farm, since each of the 2 million hired farmworkers in the U.S. supports two to three other jobs in sales, processing, marketing and transportation.

This shortage of farmworkers also bumps up against what is an open secret in agriculture: that of those 2 million hired employees, 60 percent to 70 percent are unauthorized to work in this country, though they show employers documents that appear genuine.

Even though unemployment is still a problem in many areas, farmers — often paying well above minimum wage — have a difficult time finding workers. The main factor is the seasonal and often transitory nature of the work. Most people do not want a job that lasts only six weeks; far fewer want to travel across the country from south to north each year after the harvest seasons.

In theory, the existing agricultural visa program could offer farmers a way to find workers. In reality, the program has become a bureaucratic nightmare that supplies less than 4 percent of the workers needed on America’s farms, and the existing program is only for temporary and seasonal work. Farmers with year-round labor needs are shut out from using the program entirely.

To respond to this situation, a group of 70 or so organizations representing farmers, growers and agricultural employers came together to form the Agricultural Workforce Coalition to speak with one voice and find a path forward on immigration reform. Through the ups and downs on this issue over the past two years, the coalition has stayed united in calling for a solution that deals with the reality of our agricultural workforce and with the need for a market-based agricultural worker program to address labor needs.

This January, Congress can turn the page on this issue and start anew. The only way to permanently fix agriculture’s labor shortage is through legislation. We hope that in the new Congress, the House and Senate, Republicans and Democrats, Congress and the administration, can come together and agree on legislation to secure America’s agricultural future.

Founding members of the Agriculture Workforce Coalition:

Bob Stallman
American Farm Bureau Federation

Michael V. Geary
President & CEO

Mike Stuart
President & CEO
Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association

Frank A. Gasperini, Jr.
Executive Vice President
National Council of Agricultural Employers

Charles F. Conner
President & CEO
National Council of Farmer Cooperatives

Roger Johnson
National Farmers Union

Jim Mulhern
President & CEO
National Milk Producers Federation

Tom Stenzel
President & CEO
United Fresh Produce Association

Chalmers R. Carr
USA Farmers

Jim Bair
President & CEO
U.S. Apple Association

Tom Nassif
President & CEO
Western Growers

Michael Marsh
Western United Dairymen

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