OFA discusses immigration with Dave Runsten, CAFF Policy Director and OFA leader

Raising good clean food requires a lot of labor.  Immigrants have been critical to meeting the agricultural labor demand. Farm labor is skilled labor, and over the last decade, farms have increasingly had difficulty finding reliable labor to plant, weed, harvest, milk—all the crucial support farms need to raise healthy delicious food.  Many farmers have found local  U.S. citizens to be uninterested in farm work, so legal immigrants have been especially important to meeting the labor needs of small and mid-size organic and family farms across the nation.

Immigration reform is sorely needed and it’s an issue Congress has been working on for the last decade without much success.  Organic Farmers Association supports a comprehensive immigration reform that supports the current needs of farmers and farmworkers.  This year, Congress is working on streamlining the H2A temporary agricultural program for guestworkers, which would speed up the process of bringing foreign workers into the U.S.. It would allow for more workers to stay in the country year-round rather than for 10 months or less.

To better understand the labor demands of the nation and what these potential changes to H2A mean for organic and family farmers, we interviewed Dave Runsten, a member of our policy committee and Policy Director for the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF). CAFF is a California-based nonprofit geared towards sustainable food systems and strengthening family farms.

What is the farm labor demand and how is it met?

“It is normally the case that farm workers grow up on farms,” Runsten said. “So few people in the United States grow up on farms today—probably little more than 1% of the US population lives on farms—that we have few people growing up accustomed to farm work. As a result, we have become more and more dependent on immigrants from countries where more people live on farms. Also, farm laborers were mostly excluded from U.S. labor laws and so lack many of the protections available in other sectors.” This has discouraged U.S. citizens from entering the agricultural workforce, especially with historically low agricultural wages.

Immigrants, Runsten argues, have been and will continue to be essential for meeting labor demands on American farms. In California alone, about 95% of agricultural workers are immigrants.

“Because of the extensive historical reliance on immigrants to perform farm labor and because of the lack of an available domestic workforce, it will not be possible to continue labor-intensive agriculture without immigrants,” he said. “Many studies of the effects of immigrants on U.S. workers have conclusively shown that immigrants are largely complementary to U.S. workers and that the society benefits greatly from their presence.”

How do agricultural labor demands differ across the country?

The West Coast employs a majority of the nation’s farm labor. “Half the labor demand is on the West Coast, and the rest is spread all around the country,” Runsten explained, adding that farm labor needs also vary greatly depending on the region. Unlike other parts of the nation that rely heavily on seasonal labor, the work demanded in California and other more temperate West Coast states takes up much more time out of the year.

More labor-intensive methods of agriculture require more workers as well. This includes organic farming, since it is more labor-intensive than conventional practices, and fruit and vegetable production in general. “Labor-intensive fruit and vegetable production has extensively relied on immigrant workers for most of the past century,” Runsten explained.  In addition, many northern dairy states are increasingly dependent on year-round immigrant labor to help with multiple daily milkings and all the labor associated with caring for dairy herds.  This labor need is often less visible but increasingly necessary for rural farmers in dairy states.

What are the needs of organic and family farmers?

“Most organic farmers don’t use the H2A program because it’s too expensive for them,” Runsten said. “The family farmers we’re working with [at CAFF] don’t use it either.” H2A employers have to provide housing for their workers, a cost that usually only large operations are able to take on. Because of this, many organic farms prefer hiring U.S. citizens, since H2A isn’t a viable financial option for them.

“The organic farmers we work with at CAFF hire workers directly,” Runsten said. “They just want more workers available—people who are legally here and want to work.” According to Runsten, it’s also important to California organic and family farmers to have workers who stay in the U.S. Workers under the H2A program can’t bring their families with them to the U.S. and will periodically go back to their home countries, not participating in the local community as residents.  That can lead to a lot of turnover in your labor force.  For a small business constant turnover is not efficient nor cost-effective.  “In California, most farmworkers are settled, have family, and don’t move around much,” Runsten explained. “We need more people to be farmworkers and to live here.”

What is OFA advocating for?

OFA supports legalizing the existing farm labor force, keeping the current H2A program as is for those who need it, and adding an agriculture work-visa program for workers to receive a green card, if desired, after a certain period of required agricultural work. Relying less on the H2A program and more on legal immigrants would allow for more small and mid-size farms to meet their labor needs at a cost that they can manage. The growth of the uncapped H2A program could be unprecedented, likely exceeding 300,000 placements in 2019, but this will benefit few farms and not address the agricultural labor needs of the majority of small to mid-size organic and family farms.

“At present only the largest farming operations are using this program on the West Coast,” Runsten pointed out. “They are using farm labor contractors as intermediaries to recruit and manage the workers on probably fewer than 100 farms.” According to Runsten, expanding H2A “will lead to consolidation of farming and possibly eliminate many diversified family-scale farms.” Runsten also foresees attempts of crop mechanization and moving crops that cannot be mechanized offshore if H2A continues to greatly expand.

Expanding H2A also means that there will be more agricultural workers with poor benefits, attached to their employer, unable to change jobs and settle in the U.S. with their families.

“We want people to be immigrants, not temporary guests,” said Runsten. “We want workers to have the hope of getting a green card, joining their family, and being part of the community.”  Organic farming is about care and justice as much as it is about ecology and health, and farms need a consistent work force that can continue to grow in skill and commitment to the farm business.

“Farmers across the country recognize that the United States needs a rational immigration policy that will allow them to hire the workers they need, and that those workers should be in the country legally and should have a path to legal permanent residency and bringing their families.”

By adding an additional pathway for workers through an agricultural work visa, the organic community would be better equipped to meet their businesses labor needs and stay in business.


Act Now!

Organic consumers: call or email your member of Congress and Senators to encourage them to pass legislation that would legalize the existing farm labor work force by creating a pathway for agricultural workers visas to help organic farmers be better equipped to meet their labor needs and stay in business. The House of Representatives has been working on developing an immigration bill.

You can find your Representative by going to House.gov and entering your zip code.

You can find your Senator’s contact information at Senate.gov.

If you call, ask for the immigration or agriculture legislative assistant. Ask them to support legislation that would legalize the existing farm labor work force by creating a pathway for agricultural work visas to help organic farmers be better equipped to meet their labor needs and stay in business.

If you email, cut and paste the following:

Pass legislation that would legalize the existing farm labor work force by creating a pathway for agricultural workers visas to help organic farmers be better equipped to meet their labor needs and stay in business.