The United States is facing an acute labor shortage across industries. Some of the most affected sectors are the agricultural and food industries, which have already been experiencing strained labor markets for over a decade. While many factors have contributed to these workforce deficits, cumbersome and outdated immigration laws are critical factors.
This labor shortage has had several impacts – reducing productivity and revenues for agricultural and food producers, incentivizing the offshoring of certain types of production, and undermining U.S. food security. However, another consequence of these worker shortages has been particularly noticeable for the American public – rising food and grocery prices. With food inflation in September 2022 reaching its highest inflation level over a twelve-month period since 1979, the need to expand the agricultural workforce is increasingly evident.
This paper recognizes that inflation is a global phenomenon and that labor shortages in one country or another only play a limited role. However, while acknowledging that improving American immigration policies and laws is not a panacea, the United States is better positioned than any other country to reduce food prices through common-sense policy changes. As the world’s largest exporter of food, U.S. policymakers can act to increase the number of immigrant farmworkers lawfully working in the United States. Labor reforms in the sector, such as those proposed in the Farm Workforce Modernization Act (FWMA), would provide stability in the agricultural labor force, prevent the offshoring of food production, and reduce food waste from unharvested crops in American farms.
Dysfunction in the Agricultural and Food Workforce
No other economic sector depends as much on immigrants as the agricultural industry, with immigrants making up as much as 73% of farm workers in the United States. Accordingly, when restrictive immigration laws and policies hinder the flow of immigrant workers to the country, the agricultural industry suffers disproportionately. In the absence of needed reforms, farmers and ranchers are forced to choose between cutting production, losing their crops, or hiring undocumented migrants. As a result, 48% of the total farming workforce in America is undocumented.
The United States is a nation of laws, and the country’s agriculture industry should not depend on an undocumented workforce. Farmers, however, have extremely limited access to legal workers, and most undocumented farmworkers – even those with deep roots in the United States and advanced skills – usually have no pathway to permanent status.
There are two main visa categories that allow foreign nationals to work in agriculture and other food-related industries: The H-2A visa program, which covers seasonal agricultural workers, and the H-2B visa program, which applies to temporary non-agricultural workers but includes other types of food workers. Both have proven to be insufficient in recent years – and particularly in a time of persistent labor shortages.
The H-2A agricultural guest worker program is a complicated and expensive process for farmers. Given the slim profit margins faced by many farmers, many find it unhelpful, and it provides less than 10% of the immigrant agriculture workforce. The program is limited to seasonal labor, meaning some crucial American agricultural sectors, such as the dairy industry, do not have any access to H-2A visas at all.
Unlike the H-2A visa program, the H-2B visa program is capped by Congress at 66,000 visas per year. Congress, however, has regularly afforded the Department of Homeland Security, in consultation with the Department of Labor, the authority to release additional visas to help employers meet the demand for seasonal workers, including non-agricultural positions related to the food industry. However, the release of additional H-2B visas is sometimes announced so late in the year that many employers miss out on their window to benefit from immigrant workers. While providing DHS with this discretion has helped address labor shortages in a number of sectors that rely on seasonal non-agricultural workers, it has still proven to be insufficient to meet the demand for H-2B workers, which continues to outstrip the supply of H-2B visas even after the release of these additional visas.
All these complex conditions and limited immigration options have accentuated farm and food industry workforce shortages in the United States, driving down food production, undermining global supply chains, and increasing the costs of key agricultural commodities. As a consequence of these conditions, along with other factors, the United States is experiencing the highest food price increase in a twelve-month period since 1979.
Inflation in Food Prices
Over the past year, the world has seen inflation in food prices at their highest levels in decades. The Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, rising energy and fertilizer costs, and armed conflict – notably Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, one of the world’s major grain producers – have disrupted global supply chains and dramatically increased global food prices. In the U.S., food prices have increased by 11.2% between September 2021 and September 2022.
Product shortages, rising input costs, and expectations of future inflation all contribute to increases in inflation. In the case of the United States, labor shortages in the agricultural sector reduce output – both in terms of growing less and the generation of more food waste. On the latter point, approximately one-third of edible produce remains unharvested in the United States due to several factors, including labor unavailability, causing severe impacts on the economy. This wasteful process not only increases food prices but also exacerbates global food insecurity. This is one of the reasons why a recent report conducted by Texas A&M revealed that higher admissions of immigrant workers are directly related to lower prices of meat, poultry, eggs, dairy, fruits, and vegetables.
Given today’s globalized agricultural commodities market, it is difficult for individual countries to reduce food prices on a worldwide basis. That said, the United States – the world’s largest exporter of food and the second-largest importer of food in the world – is uniquely positioned to help alleviate high food prices, with agricultural immigration reforms playing a significant – although not determinative – role.
The Farm Workforce Modernization Act Will Help Address Labor Shortages and Food Prices
Congressional action is essential to provide durable solutions to labor shortages in the farm and food workforces. While the executive branch has some ability to provide for additional agricultural and other temporary visas – either through more efficient H-2A processing or using its full authority to approve additional H-2B visas, the shortcomings of these visa programs limit their impact. Additionally, changes in presidential administrations make reliance on administrative action vulnerable to party and presidential ideologies.
On the other hand, Congress can more effectively address these issues in a systematic matter. By codifying such policies, Congress can pass needed reforms to agricultural visa programs, providing more stability to the farm industry – workers and producers alike.
Accordingly, Congress should reform agricultural and non-agricultural visa programs to make them more usable for workers and employers, allowing the number of visas to satisfy the demand for workers in these sectors – especially in a time of labor shortages and rising costs. Passing such legislation would help address the inflation we have seen in food prices over the past two years.
In 2021, the House of Representatives passed a bipartisan bill that would address many of these issues – the Farm Workforce Modernization Act (FWMA). This bill, introduced in 2021 by Representatives Zoe Lofgren (D-California) and Dan Newhouse (R-Washington), would create a pathway to legalization for current unauthorized agricultural workers and modernize the existing H-2A temporary agricultural worker visa program, among other provisions. For more than a year, Senators Michael Bennet (D-Colorado) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) have been working on a bipartisan Senate counterpart to the House-passed bill. Congress still has time in the post-election session to reach an agreement on these needed agricultural workforce reforms – a needed effort that will also have benefits for food security and prices.
Among other provisions, the FWMA would create a Certified Agricultural Worker (CAW) status for undocumented immigrant farmworkers who have been employed in the U.S. for at least 180 days before the bill’s introduction, granting them temporary residency. CAW status would eventually open a path to permanent residence for farmworkers who work in agriculture for four consecutive years — as long as they had worked in agriculture for over ten years — or for eight years if they cannot prove a ten-year experience.
The bill would make available 40,000 green cards exclusively for agricultural workers, including recent H-2A temporary foreign workers. In addition, the FWMA would provide H-2A workers with flexibility in their work arrangements. H-2A workers would receive 3-year visas, including the option of a 45-day period to seek new H-2A employment at the end of their contracts within the 3 years. The FWMA would also improve the foreign labor recruitment process to protect H-2A workers against recruitment fees, fraud, and misrepresentation.
America’s agricultural and food industry labor shortages have had a number of negative impacts – increasing food waste at the farm level, exacerbating economic losses for farmers and ranchers, and triggering food inflation to record-high levels. Accordingly, creating new legal avenues for immigrant farmworkers to work in the United States is crucial to mitigating those problems. While the United States’ capacity to reduce food prices is limited and contingent on various global issues beyond its control, America remains uniquely positioned to spearhead the world’s efforts on this front. To do so, the United States must reform and modernize its immigration laws to attract and retain immigrant farmworkers who are valued and respected as essential members of the country’s economy. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act — which would create a pathway to legalization for current unauthorized agricultural workers and improve the existing H-2A temporary agricultural worker visa program — is an important vehicle to make progress on these goals.