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Farm Labor: No Easy Task

Louisiana Sugarcane Hand PlantingFarm Labor: No Easy Task

By Jim Simon

Efficiencies rule American agriculture. Cotton, beans and corn can be picked by a combine that can harvest six rows at a time. In the 1960s, a Louisiana sugarcane farmer could only manage a 400-acre farm. Today, that same sugarcane farmer can effectively cultivate a 2,000-acre and bigger farm. Tied in with improvements in transportation, manufacturing, distribution and computers, the American farmer provides American families with the lowest food costs in the world.

There are some jobs on the farm that may never change. I’m not discounting that someday a machine will be invented that can efficiently pick strawberries, plant cane or peel crawfish but until that times come, finding the labor to do seasonal jobs will remain a challenge for American farmers and entrepreneurs.

In short, it is difficult for your farming neighbor — the Henderson crawfish plant owner, the Ponchatoula strawberry farmer and even the Thibodaux sugarcane producer — to find the labor necessary to help him produce a safe, quality food product at a competitive price that allows him to make a profit.

Part of the problem is that the United States is such a great country. Our democratic society has built a mighty agricultural infrastructure that can ship fresh fruit overnight to any city in the country. But American agriculture takes a back seat to other domestic issues. In short, American agriculture has done its job so well that people have lost touch with the farm. Most American consumers haven’t a clue to the amount of expense, risk and work it takes to harvest a successful crop in a modern economy. Because of technology, the American farmer can manage his farm with fewer full-time laborers than ever before, but problems arise when the producer needs a larger workforce to do a particular job during a particular season.

For the sugarcane farmer, that time comes in the late summer when he’ll need about 10 temporary workers to help him plant cane. As the season progresses, he may only need five additional experienced tractor operators to work seven days a week until harvest is done. The sugarcane miller will also need boilers and other laborers for only 100 days to process cane juice into raw sugar

The farmer and miller would like nothing more than to hire someone local — an American — to help him with the job. However, we have so many opportunities in this country that much of the available labor is steadily working in the oil field, behind a truck wheel or in a Wal-Mart warehouse. The farmer is competing in the same labor pool as McDonald’s and McDermott. Many laborers find a steady job slinging hamburgers, stocking shelves or humping seven-and-seven offshore better than working in the sugarcane field for a season.

The reality is the Louisiana farmer relies on temporary, seasonal labor to finish his crop. Many of his seasonal laborers come from Mexico and other countries where economic opportunities are not as abundant as the United States’.

To ensure that the farmer is not taking jobs away from Americans, a grower must advertise and hire locally. Most of the time a domestic grower can’t find anyone to do the job, so what’s next? The federal government’s H2-A labor program allows a farmer to recruit guest workers from other countries to come to his farm for 30, 60 or 90 days to do a seasonal job. The farmer must follow a strict procedure while the Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Homeland Security and the Department of Justice look over his shoulder every step of the way. At any point during the season, the farmer must hire local labor over a foreign worker if he or she is qualified and available.

The farmer is responsible for his guest workers’ welfare the entire time they are in the U.S. He must provide the correct number of port-o-potties in the field for his pickers (one port-o-pot for every 20 workers…if he has 21 workers, then he better provide two outdoor johns or risk a $1500 fine). He must provide guest labor with safe transportation with working seatbelts to shopping centers and medical care or risk a $1500 fine. He must provide adequate, clean housing for his workers. He must also keep meticulous labor records and do it all perfectly according to federal regulations or be subject to fines and penalties.

The key to the American success story was born in agriculture. Eli Whitney invented the efficiency of the cotton gin and Etienne deBoré perfected the sugar crystallization process. Agriculture paved the way for manufacturing and Henry Ford’s assembly line. It’s true that agricultural improvements eliminated many backbreaking jobs on the farm and workers were displaced, but technology also created new jobs. It hasn’t been easy, but America’s economy has always managed to expand and absorb valuable labor.

Our unemployment rate is currently 6.7 percent. In 2002, unemployment was 5.7 percent. The lowest unemployment rate during the last ten years was 4.7 percent in 2006. There will always be an unemployment issue in the U.S., but the question is, can we afford a labor shortage in something as important as agriculture and our food supply?

Which brings us back to the problem at hand — how is the Louisiana farmer going to find the temporary and seasonal labor necessary to bring in a crop?

The majority of the sugarcane industry’s guest workers return to the U. S. and work year after year in the Sugar Belt, but their work visas must be processed every year.

Among other reforms, the Louisiana sugarcane industry supports a pre-processing system that will be good for five years. If our guest workers compile a positive work history during their employment and have no legal issues in the U.S. or in their native country, then our farmers and millers should be allowed to bring those workers back into the country for unfilled job vacancies to work without costly and unnecessary delays.

It all boils down to this: do we want American farmers to produce our food using foreign workers or do we want foreign farmers producing food for Americans? I’ll take American every time.


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