February 13, 2023
A note from Jenna

Washington D.C.: a place with vast amounts of history and recognizable landmarks. It’s the home to all three branches of the federal government that help to guide our country. I have fond memories of springtime sightseeing trips to Washington during the bloom of the cherry blossoms. However, our most recent trip to D.C. was more focused on educating and informing our elected officials on the major issues affecting not only agriculture in Minnesota, but agriculture across the United States.

Nametags from NCAE convention

Farmer Jerry and I spent January 30th through February 2nd in Washington D.C. with the National Council of Agricultural Employers (NCAE) at their annual meeting. This meeting is attended not only by agricultural producers from across the United States, but agencies that help administer the H-2A visa program that so many American growers rely on these days. We are all there to learn about the political climate in Washington D.C. and share real life experiences about the impacts of the H-2A program. We were also there to meet with our elected officials about changes to the program that we believe would benefit the entire agricultural industry.

America: A net food importer

While it is easy to lump any visit to Washington D.C. as politically motivated, this trip was different. According to the USDA, the United States will become a net agricultural food importer in 2023, no longer a net exporter. The import number is expected to rise at a greater percentage than the net export percentage over the next several years.

This means that the United States will now be relying on other countries to feed our population. This poses a threat to national food security. Many of the agricultural imports will come from China, Mexico, South America and the nations of the Caribbean Basin.

Food produced within the United States is subject to federal regulations to keep it safe, and workers are protected by strong worker protection programs. This is not the case for food coming from many other countries. How does this sit for you?

Why is this happening?

First and foremost, there are fewer and fewer farms within the United States each year. Farming is not glamorous (surprise!). The number of people entering this field is limited, meaning there is not a stable workforce.

In my opinion, this is likely the reason why so many people are fleeing the industry and calling it quits. It’s not that American farmers can’t produce the food needed to remain a net exporter, but it’s that they don’t have the employees to do so. A combination of national food security and a sustainable and stable agricultural workforce is truly what brought us to D.C.

A potential solution

Back to the federal H-2A visa program I mentioned earlier. It’s one solution that could provide a stable workforce for farmers across the United States.

The H-2A temporary guest worker program allows agricultural employers who anticipate a shortage of domestic workers to bring nonimmigrant foreign workers to the U.S. to perform temporary or seasonal labor.

H2-A Visas Issued graph

Participation in this program has exploded within the last few years as fewer and fewer domestic workers enter the agricultural sector.

In 2012, 65,345 H-2A visas were issued to US growers. By 2021, that number grew to 258,143 visas. It’s projected that well over 325,000 visas will be issued in 2023.

While the H-2A program helps to provide a reliable workforce for growers across the United States, the program itself is costly and cumbersome. Until now, growers have accepted the challenges in order to have a reliable and legal workforce to help with planting, harvesting, and other agricultural jobs. Users of the program, including Untiedt’s, are reaching a breaking point. Reform is needed to keep fresh food production within the United States.
Why do we need change now?

The last time the H-2A program was reformed was in 1986 during the Reagan administration. First off, I wasn’t even born yet, and secondly, A LOT has changed in 37 years. Without reform to this program, we put our nation at risk of relying on other countries to produce our food. If we look back throughout history, this doesn’t always end well. National food security and a stable agricultural workforce were the driving factors for our trip to Washington D.C.

While reform did pass the House at the end of 2022, it failed in the Senate. We are back to square one, but that also means that our conversations with elected officials are that much more important at this time. Yes, comprehensive reform is the overall goal, but we know that will not happen in the short term. The next best steps in our opinion would be small changes to the H-2A program each year.

Steps forward!
Jerry and Jenna with lawmakers

For the first time ever, every office we visited in Washington D.C. knew about the H-2A program. This was huge! Every lawmaker let us know that they are hearing from people about this issue weekly, as it is truly impacting American agriculture.

Typically, we spend our time educating about the program, not talking about issues. This year, we finally got to have REAL conversations about the challenges and impacts of the H-2A program.

We had three talking points with each office.
  • The H-2A program has nothing to do with immigration. It is strictly tied to agricultural production and temporary worker status. These employees come to work for anywhere from 2-10 months and then return to their home countries. H-2A is simply a way to keep agricultural production within the United States.
  • The length of the visa should be extended to 12 months or longer. This would make the program better suited to certain type of farms like the dairy industry. Dairy cows need to be milked 365 days a year, not just for 10 months.
  • Wage rates for H-2A workers need to be recalculated. Without getting into the intricacies of the program, employees receive many benefits besides an hourly wage rate such as free government inspected housing, free transportation, and travel to and from their home country among other things. Minnesota growers using the H-2A program have received an almost 30% increase in hourly rates over the last 3 years. This rate of change isn’t sustainable for anyone.

We want to take care of our employees, and we believe we do that by having a 97% return rate each season. We just can’t continue to absorb wage rate increases to this degree. An annual increase is completely acceptable but in order to help us plan, we believe it needs to be tied to something other than an arbitrary survey.

These drastic increases actually hurt our employees because growers must limit hours. Eventually we will have to to scale back on production because the costs to produce agricultural products will exceed the price we are able to charge for them.

Reasons for hope
Jenna and Jerry at the US Capitol

While it was a long day of meetings on "The Hill" as they call it, we left feeling less defeated than normal. We have some hope that some changes will come this year.

Agriculture is an important industry not only in Minnesota. It's an industry that truly every American that eats food needs. And as the average age of a farmer passes 65, it’s time to start making some changes so those farmers feel comfortable passing the torch to the next generation. Farmers need to know they have access to a stable workforce that can continue feeding not only Americans, but others across the world as well.

If you’ve made it this far, thank you. Thank you for taking some time to educate yourself about agriculture not only in Minnesota, but across the country. We know U.S. growers are able to produce more than enough food for all Americans, but unless some relief in the terms of H-2A reform happens, we fear that the number of growers will begin decreasing more rapidly.

— Jenna