Texas officials call for immediate national help on ag labor
Leaders of Texas’ produce industry very firmly encouraged the U.S. Senate to step up before November to reverse decades of inaction to improve the nation’s agricultural workforce.
A round table discussion and press conference titled “Lower Food Prices, Keep Shelves Stocked: Common Sense Solutions to Texas’ Farm Labor Shortage” was held Sept. 22 at Little Bear Produce in Edinburg, TX.
Bret Erickson, Little Bear’s executive vice president was the grower-speaker on a panel of concerned parties.
Erickson indicates that ag labor has been and remains one of his industry’s single largest challenges. It has been well documented for over a century that U.S. domestic people do not want to work in the laborious agricultural field. As such the agricultural industry in the U.S. has always depended on a seasonal workforce.
But today’s landscape has made that workforce inaccessible, expensive and it has put our farmers in jeopardy, he says.
Growers are citing 22- to 23-percent increases in overhead expenses just to operate. Food prices for fruits and vegetables have only gone up 10- to 11-percent. “That means, if nothing else, changes from today will still have 12- to 13-percent more increases to go just to cover inflation. We know the labor will go up even further as we continue to compete for the few people that are here. That means food prices will go up even higher as we face what is going to be the beginning of three to five years of inflation.
American fruit and vegetable grower-packer numbers are declining because the cost of doing business is unsustainable. Erickson explains, “The leading cause for this issue is a lack of labor.”
Erickson notes that now nearly 50 percent of all fruits and vegetables that are consumed here are imported. “The security of our nation’s fruit and vegetable supply has quietly tilted in the favor of other countries. There is a direct correlation to the shift and that fact that congress has done nothing for ag labor reforms in over a generation.”
Standing at the podium, Dante Galeazzi, the president, and CEO of the Texas International Produce Association, based in nearby Mission, TX, indicates: “Today we are going to implore our elected officials to do something to help us address this crisis. Food prices are climbing in the face of a projected multiyear inflationary period and our officials can help prevent or at least limit some of the increases.”
In 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act with bipartisan support. Now in the U.S. Senate, Senators Mike Crapo (R-ID) and Mike Bennet (D-CO) have taken the lead on negotiating improvements on the House's solutions and moving the process forward.
Galeazzi calls Texas (Republican) senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz to support Bennet and Crapo to get the Farm Labor Modernization Act “passed quickly and effectively before November, because we know that inflation continues to face us. We know that labor is not getting better. We know we need solutions.”
Galeazzi adds that ag labor has been and remains one of the single largest challenges for our industry. “It has been well documented for over a century that US domestic people do not want to work in the laborious agricultural field. As such the agricultural industry in the U.S. has always depended on a seasonal agricultural workforce. But today’s landscape has made that workforce inaccessible, expensive and it has put our farmers in jeopardy.”
Erickson notes that “The survival of companies like ours is being threatened. American farms are shutting down their farms in record numbers across America because they cannot find the labor they need. And the cost of doing business has become unsustainable.”
A few years ago, Little Bear was forced to begin using H2A workers to supplement its dwindling workforce. This was not done by choice but was a necessity, because of the inability to attract enough people to harvest and pack our products. “H-2A workers have proven to be one of the most reliable sources of labor we can get, however it comes at a tremendous expense. It is nearly 40 percent more costly than local labor.”
Erickson notes that most fresh fruit and vegetable producers across America are using H-2A visa worker programs, which are not only incredibly expensive but very cumbersome. It is also financially unsustainable as it currently stands.
“Unfortunately, Americans are mostly unwilling to do the difficult job of harvesting and packing fresh fruits and vegetables,” Erickson continues. “Our elected officials in D.C. have kicked the ag labor can down the road for far too long and now U.S. consumers are paying the price. And so are farmers. We’re being put out of business. As a family-owned business here, we are forced to cut back our acreage in Texas because we cannot get enough people.”
Erickson adds that, although the labor issue has been going on for decades, the pandemic was a catalyst, exacerbating the labor crisis to bad new levels. With the severe shortage and cost of ag labor “we see imported produce rapidly climbing while U.S. production struggles to survive. Many U.S. companies have been forced to move more of their production outside of the U.S. because there is not enough labor here to help harvest and pack our products.”
Erickson’s bottom line is that U.S. producers are being put out of business and U.S. consumers are paying the highest prices in history for their fruits and vegetables. Food prices are at record highs and growers’ profit margins are tighter than ever. “We are fighting to stay alive.”
Opening the press conference was Juan Carlos Cerda, Texas state director and deputy campaign director, of the American Business Immigration Coalition Action (ABIC Action), ABIC – Action.
Cerda emphatically indicates that the agriculture sector is facing devastating labor shortage. “This must be urgently addressed to keep grocery stores stocked and lower food prices for Texans and Americans everywhere.”
A study by Texas A&M International University shows that ag labor reform is an important strategy to combat inflation and rising grocery store prices.
A nation that cannot feed itself is not secure, Cerda emphasizes. “USDA predicts that next year the U.S. will be a net importer of agricultural goods. Meaning that we will rely more heavily on imports from other countries that we will need in order to put food on our tables. We don’t want to create food imbalances. And we don’t want to rely completely on other countries to grow our food.”
Other participants in the Sept. 22 event were City of McAllen Mayor Javier Villalobos, City of Edinburg Mayor Ramiro Garza Jr., and Gerry Garcia, vice president of special projects and government affairs, McAllen Chamber of Commerce.