Idaho is facing a critical farm labor shortage that could threaten the agricultural industry’s vitality. While this scarcity of labor is not unique to the Gem State, it is a widespread issue affecting farms nationwide. In a bid to resolve this crisis, Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson and a bipartisan group of lawmakers are determined to pass an immigration reform bill into law.
“There are so many undocumented workers working in agriculture today — if we can’t get this passed, what’s going to happen is you’re going to deport these people, and then all of a sudden milk is gonna go to $50 a gallon or $100 a gallon,” Simpson said. “You won’t be able to have any cherries or strawberries or anything else that requires picking, all that kind of stuff. It would be devastating to our economy and to agriculture.”
The Farm Workforce Modernization Act, reintroduced this year and passed by the House two years in a row, aims to create a legal workforce for agriculture, a priority underscored by Simpson. It seeks to bring undocumented workers “out of the shadows” by requiring them to comply with the law. This entails the payment of fines for their previous illegal entry into the country.
“We want to get them out of the woodwork, let them get right with the law by paying a fine for coming here illegally,” Simpson stated. “And make sure they have appropriate criminal background checks.”
Additionally, to ensure a commitment to the agricultural sector, workers are expected to remain in the industry for a designated period. Ultimately, the bill culminates in the issuance of permanent green cards, emphasizing a compassionate approach to their legal status.
This bill not only addresses the labor shortage but also makes agriculture a year-round program, extending its benefits beyond seasonal work. It also establishes a mandatory e-verify program to ensure that all future agricultural workers are authorized to be in the country.
According to Simpson, critics of the bill argue that this reform grants amnesty to undocumented workers.
“This is not amnesty by any stretch of the imagination. Could they become citizens at some point? Yes,” he clarified. “It would probably be 18 to 20 years before someone would qualify for becoming a citizen, but they don’t get to jump the line. They have to go to the back of the line like anybody else.”
The bill also takes into account specific concerns within the agricultural industry. One aspect of the legislation is its impact on the H-2A program, which is used to employ temporary agricultural workers. Under this program, employers are required to pay what’s referred to as the “MRA” or “adverse effect wage rate.”
During the negotiations for this bill, a consensus was reached between agricultural producers and farm labor groups. They agreed to a maximum annual wage increase, capped at 3.25%, with the first year’s increase frozen. This agreement ensures that wage rates for agricultural workers remain stable and predictable, a crucial element in enabling farmers to manage their labor costs effectively.
Simpson’s bipartisan efforts have garnered support from over 300 organizations, including the American Chamber of Commerce and the American Bankers Association.
“It is an important bill. It’s probably No. 1 priority of trying to get something done in this Congress,” he stated. “We’re going to continue to work on it, and get it done either this year, or next year.”
Insights from Idaho Farm Bureau Federation
For years, the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation has worked to address the urgency of finding solutions by highlighting the importance of reforming the guest worker program and advocating for policies that ensure a reliable workforce for the agricultural sector.
According to Sean Ellis, Director of Publications at the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation, there are approximately 25,000 farms and ranches in Idaho, with nearly all of them facing the challenge of finding sufficient agricultural labor.
“The availability of agricultural labor is the No. 1 issue among agriculture in Idaho. It has been for a lot of years,” Ellis said. “It’s getting harder and harder, seemingly every year, to get the labor available to fill these jobs.”
Brian Jensen, director of governmental affairs at Idaho Farm Bureau Federation, said shortage of agricultural labor also impacts the production of various agricultural commodities in the state.
“Without a reliable workforce, agricultural operations might be forced to change the types of crops they grow or invest heavily in automation, which would have far-reaching consequences for the state’s agriculture,” he said.
“This really is a national security kind of issue — we talk a lot about food security as national security. We have to have a workforce and a labor force to be able to produce here, and we have the resources to do it. We just need a policy in place so we can actually get our labor needs met to continue to produce for the nation.”