The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

The Agricultural Workforce Coalition

The Agricultural Workforce Coalition

In the News

September 24, 2013

Some industries and businesses cannot survive without foreign workers, and for labor-intensive agriculture in California, their presence is especially critical. There is another key demographic in America: the 100 percent of people who eat. They require human hands to plant, harvest, pack and deliver fresh fruit, vegetables and tree nuts to their plates every day. Machines have yet to be invented that can pick strawberries or celery, and these and other crops are in danger of rotting in the field without timely harvesting.

For example, according to a 2012 survey by the California Farm Bureau, 71% of tree fruit growers, and nearly 80% of raisin and berry growers, were unable to find an adequate number of employees to prune trees or vines or pick the crop. In 2008, Texas A&M reported that 77% of vegetable farmers reported scaling back operations. More than 80,000 acres of fresh produce that used to be grown in California have been moved to other countries. Without immigration reform, estimates are that thousands of farms could fail and farm income could drop by $5 to $9 billion.

“Our industry has openly conceded that it is dependent on foreign workers, many who are improperly documented. For the last 15 years, California farmers have been pleading with Congress for a practical agricultural worker program through meaningful immigration reform. Many of our farmers are reporting labor shortages, and we anticipate this situation will worsen without sensible policy changes,” says Tom Nassif, president and CEO of Western Growers Association.

To respond to this need, a group of about 70 organizations representing agricultural employers across the country came together, forming the Agricultural Workforce Coalition (AWC), to speak with one voice and to find a path forward on immigration reform. The AWC came together with the United Farm Workers (UFW) union this past spring to unite both employers and employees behind a proposal to help ensure America's farmers have access to a stable and secure work force. 

The landmark agreement reached by the Ag Workforce Coalition (AWC) and the United Farm Workers (UFW) union helps meet the labor needs of agriculture both now and in the future. That proposal also addresses border security and by no means offers amnesty to those already living and working in the country. Rather, existing workers would be put on "probation," requiring them to register with the federal government, undergo a criminal background check, and if no criminal convictions are found, would pay a fine and receive provisional legal status or a blue card.

Also, unlike current programs such as H-2A, the AWC proposal is meant to ensure that all types of producers – including both those with seasonal labor needs and ones with year-round labor needs – have access to the workforce they need to remain productive and competitive. For the current workforce, the AWC recommends that workers, upon completion of their future work obligation, obtain permanent legal status and the right to work in whatever industries they choose, including agriculture. For future workers, the Agricultural Worker Visa Program offers two different work options – “At Will” Visas and Contract Visas. Essentially, “At-Will” Visa employees have the freedom to move from employer to employer without contractual commitment (how the labor force is allocated now), while Contract Visa employees commit to work for an employer for a fixed period of time, increasing stability for both parties. 

Nassif is optimistic that Congress will strongly consider this proposal because the current situation makes our farms and ranches less competitive with foreign farmers – and less reliable for the American consumer. Securing a reliable and competent workforce for our nation’s farms and ranches is essential, he says, to agriculture and to the U.S. economy.

“Inaction on immigration reform legislation for process or political reasons is not a suitable outcome for agriculture. We hope that the general principles of this agreement would be carried through in any legislation dealing with agricultural workers in the House of Representatives,” says Nassif.