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Help Wanted for Farm Labor Challenges


WASHINGTON (DTN) -- Nick Oomen, who grows about 2,000 acres of fruits and vegetables near Hart, Michigan, was among the farmers the American Farm Bureau Federation flew into Washington last week to meet with lawmakers about agricultural labor needs and pressures.

Farmers are frustrated over how the U.S. Department of Labor comes up with numbers for the "Adverse Effect Wage Rate" (AEWR), which essentially sets the minimum pay scale for H-2A guest workers. The Labor Department largely bases the AEWR on USDA's semi-annual Farm Labor Survey.


As wages keep increasing at roughly 7% a year, Oomen told DTN there are a lot of questions from farmers over how the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) conducts that survey and how the data is collected.

"Because, year after year, we see rate raises in the federally mandated wage rate, and nobody can seem to answer questions as to where this is coming from or how it's being formulated," Oomen said. He added, "It's affected growers back home as far as their cost of operations and whether they're going to be in certain industries and for how much longer."

While there have been some bills introduced in the current Congress to change the methodology for H-2A guest worker wages, none have advanced. A bill to reform the H-2A program, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, passed the House in the last Congress in 2021 but stalled in the Senate and never got a vote.

Last month, the House Agriculture Committee released a report from a bipartisan "Agricultural Labor Working Group" with a set of 15 different recommendations that had unanimous support for legislation and policy changes.


None of that is going anywhere, as Oomen and others learned when visiting with members of Congress and their staff. Immigration reform, even to help farmers, is just not going to happen right now.

"It's very frustrating when you are sitting in a meeting and you know behind the scenes there were seven Democrats and seven Republicans who sat in a room and fundamentally agreed on 15 issues," Oomen said. "So, how do we move this along and solve thig problem? Because there's obviously bipartisan support at some level."


Laura Haffner operates a custom-harvesting business out of Hays, Kansas, that travels from Texas to the Canadian border each year harvesting wheat and other small grains. Living in an area with low population and low unemployment, Haffner said the custom-harvesting business relies heavily on H-2A guest workers. Haffner said she's concerned more farmers are running out of time.

"There are real consequences. Right now, we're losing farms right and left who are struggling to fill those roles with labor," Haffner said. "Whether it's labor costs or input costs, we're being squeezed from all directions right now. And once you lose those farms or farmers or even ag businesses, you don't get that back."

Haffner said it creates a domino effect in small towns as farmers and rural businesses disappear, others follow.

Oomen said another farmer who was part of their lobbying effort was from Washington state where as many as 14 farms a week are going out of business right now.

"Farmers are struggling from coast-to-coast and the people who can do something about it are refusing to act and that is an extremely frustrating thing to go back home and lay in bed at night and constantly think that you don't know what your business is going to look like in three years, or you don't know what you are going to have to pay in the next 12 months."


After years of applying for more workers under the H-2A program, that growth has slowed nationally. In FY 2023 there were 378,513 positions certified, up 1.8% from FY 2022. Still, the number of applications from farms seeking H-2A workers was up 10.5% in FY 2023.

The top five states for bringing in H-2A workers are Florida, California, Georgia, Washington state and North Carolina. Those five states brought in just over 50% of all H-2A guest workers in FY 2023, according to the Department of Labor.

The last Farm Labor Survey, released in November, reported that farm operators were paying workers an average of $18.81 an hour nationally.

The latest AEWR showed wages in different states ranged from a low of $14.53 an hour in Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, to a high of $19.75 an hour in California. The Labor Department pegged the AEWR national average at $16.98 an hour.


During a House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearing last week, Republicans questioned Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack about the Farm Labor Survey and argued it is creating unsustainable costs for farmers.

Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Mich., said he had introduced legislation to pause wage increases for two years and argued with Vilsack that the Farm Labor Survey doesn't reflect local wage levels in different states.

Vilsack said if Congress wants to address the challenges of farm labor, lawmakers should pass the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which would have frozen wages for a year and created a range of wages for specific jobs.

Vilsack also said farmwork is "tough work" and part of the challenge with labor is when workers are asked to do a skilled job. Vilsack disagreed that farmworkers are overcompensated.

Moolenaar responded, "Unfortunately, they are overcompensated and they are putting farms at risk. I don't think the status quo is going to work for farmers in America."

Vilsack defended the USDA survey, saying, "I think it is an accurate and appropriate vehicle to be used."

Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., a GOP champion for the farmworker bill told Vilsack rural communities are struggling for a lot of reasons it is no longer economically viable for farmers to raise products that demand a lot of labor. The farm wage rate in Washington state is $19 an hour, which Newhouse also said is unsustainable.

Vilsack maintained the best way to reduce wage hikes for agriculture is to pass the farmworker bill. "Pass immigration reform -- no excuses, get it done."


Republicans aren't the only ones pushing back on the Farm Labor Survey. Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., last week sent the head of USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service an inquiry about how the agency conducts the survey. Ossoff said he also wants more transparency "about how Georgia growers are asked to participate in the Farm Labor Survey" as well as resources for farmers to help them complete the survey.

"Agriculture is Georgia's No. 1 industry, and one of my top priorities is ensuring that Georgia's farmers and farmworkers prosper," Sen. Ossoff wrote. "For this reason, I write to request additional information about the data you gather about Georgia's agricultural economy, how you deploy your limited resources to best inform the agricultural public, and how we can work together to support Georgia's growers as they provide important data to you."

Ossoff raised concerns even though Georgia's AEWR right now remains on the lower end of the scale at $14.68 an hour.


Farmers lobbying to overhaul the program pointed out it's difficult to see any changes because of the constant pressure of immigration politics. "We would like to separate that from the border issue and asylum issue and immigration as a whole, but unfortunately it's one of those hot-topic issues," Oomen said. "So that's a huge hurdle and it's going to take a considerable effort to get anything done."

Haffner and Oomen and others said lawmakers were sympathetic to their challenges, but also said Congress has no plans to take up any bills that would help with farm labor.

"It's really like a death by a thousand cuts," Oomen said. "We've been working on this issue for 20 years and it seems we just never get anywhere. It's always just not the right time."

Chris Clayton can be reached at

Follow him on X, formerly known as Twitter, @ChrisClaytonDTN

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