Guest column: Florida agriculture needs improved guest worker program
The United States’ economy is booming and unemployment is at a record low.
Despite our strong economy, one of the top concerns for our nation’s farmers and ranchers is the availability of a steady, reliable workforce.
I plan to introduce a common-sense agriculture guest worker bill that offers a solution.
I understand the needs of American producers and those of the farmworker, having worked in agriculture for over 30 years. At the age of 15, I loaded produce during the harvest season at the Pompano farmers market in South Florida. I went to veterinary school and after graduation, I worked as a large animal vet in North Central Florida.
For the last 6 ½ years, I have served on the House Agriculture Committee, proudly representing Florida’s Third Congressional District.
Florida’s Third Congressional District is primarily rural and agriculture drives the economy. Producers back home say labor is their primary concern. Unfortunately, with the average age of a farmer at 58 years old, the American agricultural workforce is dwindling.
These producers are unable to find enough domestic workers who are willing and able to harvest crops or tend to livestock. So producers have searched elsewhere for labor to fulfill their needs, largely in Mexico and Central America.
Producers use the H-2A visa program to bring in temporary agricultural workers to address the domestic labor shortage. The H-2A program is a vital resource, but it is flawed. For starters, the program is only available for “seasonal” agricultural producers. Right now, dairy, beef cattle, pork and other producers are unable to use the program.
Without a domestic labor force or access to the H-2A program, many of these producers must rely on unauthorized workers to meet their production needs. We must have a program that ensures producers have access to the workers they need.
Congress has attempted to address the problems with H-2A for years. Unfortunately, this issue gets wrapped up with attempts at “comprehensive” reform. However, “comprehensive” in Washington means “not going to happen.”
Agricultural guest worker reforms should be viewed as a labor issue, plain and simple.
For those reasons, I am crafting a bill that provides a reliable, predictable and steady supply of workers for all of our nation’s agricultural producers who cannot find domestic labor. This bill addresses three major areas.
One, it would create a new agricultural guest worker program at the Department of Agriculture that meets the needs of our producers.
Two, the legislation would create a prescreened guest worker pool administered by USDA to avoid unnecessary delays for producers. The legislation would also ensure seasonal and year-round producers have access to the program and a safe and reliable workforce.
Three, the program would guarantee legal certainty for existing undocumented agricultural workers who are already present in the United States, along with their spouses and children.
We must face reality. Without a reliable, predictable and steady agriculture workforce, our food will not get to market, household food costs will increase and our producers will not be able to compete globally.
Our farmers and ranchers produce the highest quality food in the world. We are fortunate to live with such abundance, but we need individuals to work the fields and ranches to make this possible.
Rep. Ted Yoho, R-FL, is a member of the House Agriculture Committee and a large animal veterinarian.