To help alleviate labor shortages in U.S. agriculture, an American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) working group has proposed work authorization for “a limited population of key workers that have agricultural experience and will continue to work in agriculture to remain in status on what we call an ‘ag card,’” says Kristi Boswell, AFBF director of congressional relations.

The card would be biometric and carried by migrant laborers to prove work authorization.

“This would not be an H2-A reform but a new program,” says Boswell. “It would remedy the failings of H2-A and provide more flexibility than the H2-A program provides, but keeps the security and stability of the program.”

In mid-November, Farm Press spoke with Kevin Morgan, director of agricultural policy at Florida Farm Bureau, about the labor situation in his state, how the H2-A program is being utilized and how the “ag card” would work.

Among Morgan’s comments:

On Florida’s labor situation during the last several years…

“We’ve had some spot labor shortages but have been lucky over the last couple of years in that they’ve not been tremendously widespread. However, labor is so important to the types of crops we grow in the state that we’re always very fearful there will be labor shortages and we’ll lose crops in the field.

“There have been other areas around the country that had tremendous labor shortages in 2011. That’s something we always have to pay attention to…

“There are so many facets to immigration reform that need to be addressed. It’s very, very complex. Basically, what we have now isn’t working and is too expensive to use.

“We have to think a bit outside the box, make sure employees and employers are protected and everyone can move forward.

“Honestly, this is a national security issue. If this nation can’t feed itself — and the only way we can is to produce and harvest our own food here — and we don’t have access to a legal labor force that can’t be taken away at anytime, we can’t continue to grow the types of crops we do in Florida. So, this is an extremely important issue.”

On how producers are using the H2-A program…

“The H2-A program is the only legal worker program in existence. In Florida, the program doesn’t work that well. We have had some growth in the program, some increased numbers, but that’s simply because it’s the only game in town. 

“Some growers have learned how to use the H2-A program. But even they’ll tell you it’s expensive and too cumbersome. They must be assured of legal labor when they need it, though, so some are willing to put up with all the regulatory hullaballoo that goes along with H2-A. Even so, H2-A is much, much too difficult and expensive for the majority of Florida producers.”

On the AFBF proposal, the “ag card” and how it might work…

“This American Farm Bureau proposal came together after many years. We knew we had to do something and kept working to come up with something viable. In the past, we’ve tried to come up with legislative solutions.

“A bit over a year ago, the (AFBF) put together a work group to try and solve the problem of composing a program that would work for all commodities, in all parts of the country for all sectors. That was kind of the premise when we began. The program also had to be flexible and market-based.

“There were many really good people in the work group from around the country. Some used H2-A, others didn’t. Some hired a local work force.

Looking for additional sponsors

“We came up with some proposals and, in October, the (AFBF) board approved the plan. My understanding is the next step is to find other sponsors by reaching out to other ag associations and groups where labor is a big issue.

“We want everyone is on the same page so that we can put forth a unified to Congress. This very, very complex problem needs a solution.”

A solution for agriculture alone…

“The general concept — and one of the things that’s different about this approach than previous ones — is we’re trying to design something that is strictly for agriculture. We’re not trying to include the construction industry. This is for agriculture alone. We feel agriculture has special needs.

“In Florida —and in a few other states — we have a huge labor force already here. They may or may not be using fraudulent documentation to gain employment. But there are a lot of workers here currently.

“One of the things we want out of a program is to provide the ability for those who are living in our communities now — who have kids in our school systems and are a part of the community and aren’t leaving — can still work in agriculture if they so desire. They’re trained and they’ve been here. Many of them are our foremen and higher-level employees.

“So, part of this ‘ag card’ would be to allow someone already here, or someone coming here, to have some a work authorization document. It would allow them to legally work in agriculture.”

On the proposal’s at-will and contract sections…

“The reason there were two paths in the proposal is that some wanted an at-will work force while others are much more comfortable with contract-based employees. The work group tried to be more inclusive — not exclusive. So, we tried to frame things where we could have both types of work programs.

“That’s the concept we’ve moved forward with.”

On the regional make-up of the working group…

“I didn’t notice there were regional differences (between those in the working group) as it was more crop-based. Some of the crops have a work force that are more used to working under contract. Some of those that have been successful at using H2-A lean more towards contracts.”

On “ag card” employees being able to move between registered employers…

“The (workers) would be able to move at the end of jobs.

“Let’s say you and I are both registered employers and have employees picking strawberries. Well, the season is short. Once they’re through working your crop, if they want to come to my fields to pick, they can.

“That is a plus for the employee because it allows them more working hours. And in agriculture, sometimes your crop may be destroyed by weather. (The proposal) would allow the employee to move quickly to another registered employer and not be out of work.”

Anything else?

“I appreciate the (AFBF) for recognizing how important this issue is. They’ve put a lot of time and effort and put a lot of the right people together.

“Now, we’ve got something to move forward with. I’m looking forward to working on this over the next year.”

dbennett@farmpress.com