Few people would argue this has been a long, trying winter. More than other years, the record-breaking snowfall, freezing cold and now-infamous Polar Vortex have everyone looking forward to spring. But there is one sector of the population who want winter to last a bit longer to get ready for the spring: Illinois farmers.
With true spring weather set to return, members of the farming community are preparing for the planting and growing seasons. An important factor farmers need to prepare for right now -- also our biggest challenge -- is where we will find a stable, reliable, skilled workforce despite our nation’s broken immigration system. Frey Farms is in seven states, including its Illinois headquarters. We grow, pack and ship cantaloupes and watermelons, but are best known as the nation’s top producer of Jack O’ Lantern pumpkins.
Few if any other aspect of our business is as important to me as a reliable, skilled workforce. In fact, it’s essential to our future.
The agricultural sector from coast to coast is fundamentally dependent on its workforce to maintain production -- a workforce that is predominantly foreign-born. In fact, as many as 75 percent of the U.S. agricultural workforce is made up of migrant workers, nearly 50 percent of whom are said to be undocumented. Unfortunately, U.S. farmers are forced to operate under outdated laws that, quite literally, prevent them from attracting and retaining skilled labor. The H-2A Guest visa program, which exists to allow temporary status to foreign-born workers in seasonal positions, is so problematic and time consuming it becomes more of an obstacle than a benefit.
Despite our best efforts to build interest for our available work among the domestic population, countless jobs remain unfilled each season. Time and time again, we have found that native-born citizens are not interested in manual labor or seasonal work in rural areas. How else can we explain our state’s problematic unemployment rate given the glut of available agricultural jobs? Farming is not glamorous by conventional standards; it requires long hours in uncomfortable weather doing repetitive tasks. Back and joint pain can be common as workers regularly lift, pick and sort crops and push, pull and carry equipment. Despite the difficulty of the work, thousands of migrant workers return to farms across Illinois year after year because they see our fields as an opportunity for their families.
While economic growth should be enough of a reason for our legislators to pass immigration reform, there are real social consequences of inaction. To start, more than 47 million Americans are dependent on government programs for access to basic food needs; yet, millions of dollars of produce and overall yields are abandoned each year for lack of skilled labor during the harvest. Our nation has made a commitment to locally sourced goods, but we are rapidly approaching the day when our produce is imported from abroad, grown without U.S. regulatory oversight, because our farms are unable to meet the domestic demand. In short, we can choose to import our food, or we can choose to import our labor. To me, the choice is that simple.
Here’s the good news: the citizens of our nation have spoken. Eighty percent of Americans believe our immigration system is broken, and about 75 percent will be disappointed if congress does not act. The country is ready for meaningful, decisive action on immigration reform.
As we go through the winter thaw and move into spring, my hope as a farmer, consumer and citizen is that attitudes in the U.S. House of Representatives also will thaw and that elected officials discuss, listen, compromise and pass immigration reform in 2014.
Sarah Frey-Talley is the President and CEO of Frey Farms, a family owned operation and the single-largest pumpkin producer in the nation. Frey Farms is headquartered in Keenes.