Can D.C. Fix Ag Labor?

The struggle is real with the current U.S. labor shortage, and agriculture is certainly not excluded. The sector is feeling the squeeze, and legislators are pushing to reform the guest worker program to help.

The issue at hand: the current H-2A guest worker program is structured for seasonal, not year-round, help.

A proponent’s point: “Employers in Iowa — animal agriculture, agricultural processing — is not a seasonal business, and that’s what the H-2A program is for is seasonal workers,” Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) said. “So I hear from farmers and business(es) who just can’t find people to work.”

Today there are an estimated 2.5M farmworkers, about half of them undocumented. In March, the House passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2021, which provides mass amnesty without addressing the core labor issues. Republicans aren’t fond of the bill — and won’t approve it until Democrats secure the border.

Senator Grassley also argued the bill fails to address many of the shortfalls of H-2A. “This will involve expanding the program to cover year-round agricultural industries such as pork, dairy, and agricultural processing. It should also involve streamlining the program, reducing red tape and addressing the high cost of using the program.”

Where does it go from here? More debate on how to structure a bill that would address both worker legalization issues and solve the agricultural labor shortage.

Ag Labor Is Out of Luck

Given the ‘help wanted’ signs we’re seeing everywhere, it’s no surprise that the ubiquitous labor shortage is squeezing the ag sector, too – with no signs of stopping.

The USDA’s 2021 Farm Labor quarterly report was published with April data, and it isn’t pretty.

Overall, farm wages were up by as much as 6% over 2020. 11% fewer farm workers were hired in the same period last year. And H-2A position requests are up five times since 2005 – and are being debated as the Farm Work Modernization Act moves to the Senate.

A soundbite:The fear of exposure to Covid-19, lack of childcare, several rounds of government checks, and unusually high unemployment benefits have kept many people out of the workplace,” Sarina Sharp, Daily Dairy Report analyst, summed up.

Wage wars: Farm operations are competing for labor across industries and ultimately paying their workers more. Specialty crop farms – think produce, nut and ornamental operations – make up 52% of all farmworkers and are paying over a dollar per hour more than they were at this time last year.

Field crop workers on the West Coast are bringing home the highest wage, and gross wages for those working with livestock are up 5%.

Timely tangent: Ganaz, a workforce management platform designed specifically for farmworkers, just earned $7 million in a Series A funding round. The company aims to modernize payroll, communication and other HR functions specifically for farm operations.

If Cargill had a to-do list…

Cargill might need an extra shot of espresso in its morning brew to tackle its to-do list these days. But that comes with the territory when you’re one of the largest privately-held companies in the U.S.

Lots of industry news has Cargill’s name floating into headlines. Here’s just a sample:

Tech nerds

Collaboration is the name of the game when it comes to blockchain, and Cargill wants to lead the pack. Working in partnership with several unidentified agrifood businesses, the company has revealed ‘Splinter,’ a new open-source software to tackle some million dollar problems.

The goal? To fix tracking and communication issues across supply chain partners – think producer → processor → distributor → retailer – while maintaining independent partners’ data privacy.

Meaty probs

On its urgent and important docket, Cargill is playing nice with Canadian labor groups. Union groups claim Cargill undermined their leadership when they attempted to better protect workers at the High River beef plant in Alberta.

The plant saw nearly half of its 2,000 workers test positive with COVID-19 last May. The talks come just as a new investigation begins for one of the two worker deaths due to the virus.

Nixing Sugar

To focus on food-processing and meat production, the company is in negotiations to sell its 50% stake in Alvean, the leading global sugar trader. While sugar prices may be high now, the trading group struggled when yields soared and prices plunged the majority of the past six years.

And they’re following suit: ADM, Bunge, and Louis Dreyfus Co. are all saying ‘hasta la vista’ to their respective sugar-related investments.