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Farm Workforce Modernization Act unveiled

Progressive Dairy Editor Dave Natzke Published on 30 October 2019

Another attempt at immigration reform with a focus on addressing U.S. agriculture’s farm labor crisis has been introduced in Congress. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act was released in the House of Representatives by Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-California), chair of the House Judiciary Committee’s Immigration Subcommittee, and Dan Newhouse (R-Washington).

The bill comes at a time when dairy farmers continue to struggle to find and keep skilled employees. Among the highlights, the bill would provide a path to legalization for current farm workers and expand the H-2A foreign guestworker program.

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“Unfortunately, the existing immigrant ag labor rules, which focus on seasonal work, are unworkable for year-round dairy farming,” said Brody Stapel, president of Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative and a dairy farmer in eastern Wisconsin. “Farmers have been living in limbo for years while this issue has grown to crisis levels. We need a solution that provides a path for qualified employees to come to this country and a system for keeping those already here."

Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF), noted the bill is in the first stages in the legislative process. The bill must go through the House Judiciary Committee before it could be considered by the entire House. If approved by the House, the bill would move to the Senate. Approval there would move it to the president.

“We have supported numerous efforts to address dairy’s acute labor needs,” Mulhern said. “Passing legislation in the House is a critical step in the process. We urge the Senate to work with us on this important issue so we can get an ag worker bill across the finish line in this Congress.”

"This bipartisan bill would provide a great deal of certainty and stability on one of the most challenging aspects of milk production in the state -- the availability of trained, experienced workers to care for the cows," said Idaho Dairymen’s Association (IDA) CEO Rick Naerebout said.

According to Naerebout, the bill advances priorities his organization has sought to address dairy’s labor needs. 

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"First, dairy farmers in the state will be able to retain their current workers," Naerebout said. "The bill offers workers the chance to earn legal status and continue to be an integral part of our farms and our communities. The bill also offers dairy producers and other employers with year-round labor needs, for the first time ever, access to the program that offers jobs to temporary workers from other countries when no local workers are available to fill those positions. Lastly, the bill enhances national security with a requirement that employers who hire workers through the program must use the online E-Verify system to confirm the eligibility of new applicants."

Farmer leaders of dairy organizations expressed initial approval for the proposal and hope for passage.

“America’s dairy farmers are eager to advance and improve this legislation as it moves through the Congress,” said Mike McCloskey, a dairy farmer and chair of NMPF’s Immigration Taskforce. “As producers of a year-round product, dairy farmers face a unique labor crisis because our jobs are not seasonal or temporary. From our years of work on these issues, we know first-hand just how hard immigration reform is. But we simply cannot and will not stop working to find a solution. Dairy needs workers for our industry to sustain itself. It’s that simple, and it’s that dire.”

“The bill is good step forward for farmers, our families, our workers and their families and for the communities in rural Idaho,” said IDA president Pete Wiersma.

“We are still studying the details of this new bill to determine its full impact on our farmers, but we want to see it advance,” Stapel said. “This may be the best opportunity in the foreseeable future for a labor solution for our farmers. While certain items are not ideal, this compromise proposal does make an effort to move needed ag workforce reform forward. Edge will remain actively engaged with the Ag Workforce Coalition and the overall legislative process, which will provide the opportunity to address concerns.

“Strong bipartisan support will be needed,” Stapel continued. “We urge lawmakers in both the House and Senate to ensure that the bill is practical and helpful to our farmers, and then to move it forward to the president.”

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“Our dairy farmers face incredible challenges in finding workers,” Stapel said. “Changes in demographics, labor patterns and the nature of the jobs have made it impossible for farmers to fill all available positions with American citizens. So, dairy farming has come to increasingly depend on foreign-born employees, who have proven to be invaluable.” end mark

Dave Natzke
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