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My view: Utah's agriculture industry needs immigration reform

By Curtis Rowley

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, April 23 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

The need for immigration reform has united individuals from various sectors, including business, education and religion. But one group — our nation’s farmers — feels particularly strongly about this issue, and with good reason.

David Goldman, File, Associated Press

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The need for immigration reform has united individuals from various sectors, including business, education and religion. But one group — our nation’s farmers — feels particularly strongly about this issue, and with good reason. On our farm, we use the H2A program exclusively because we don’t have a choice if we want to stay in agriculture. The current H2A immigration policies make staffing my family’s farm expensive and overly bureaucratic, but manageable. It is now time for the House to formulate and pass an immigration reform bill that will make these expensive, bureaucratic policies more palatable and easier to use.

The Partnership for a New American Economy has been studying the impact of our current immigration policies on the national economy. They have found that American farmers are losing about $300 million annually due to labor shortages. Surveys of farmers further demonstrate this problem — in some areas 80 percent of farmers report worker shortages.

Farmers are also having trouble filling their farm positions because the physically demanding, seasonal nature of farm work does not appeal to American workers. The agriculture industry needs immigrant workers to fill the labor gap. Unfortunately, our current immigration policies make it very difficult to make us efficient in our farming operations. The current agriculture worker visas are costly and carry extensive requirements for the applicants. For my family’s farm, we haven’t been caught short on our crops because of our overly cautious preparation and our plans that expect visa delays, but it has been costly and inefficient — and it shouldn’t be this way.

Supporting our farmers’ workforce demands means implementing long-term changes to the agriculture visa program as well as short-term fixes. A key component of reform will be finding a solution for currently undocumented workers to continue working in the fields. Our nation’s farmers want to have a legal, consistent, and reliable workforce available to them. The benefits of a growing agricultural workforce extend beyond the farm because the industry is responsible for creating jobs in many other sectors as well. The Agriculture Workforce Coalition has found that every farm job creates between two and three additional jobs in related fields such as packaging, transportation, sales and marketing.

There are many reasons for Congress to take action on immigration reform, and there are no advantages to delay. The U.S. economy depends on agriculture, and agriculture depends on labor. The House must prioritize this issue and pass substantive legislation this year.

Curtis Rowley is one of the six Rowley brothers that are the owners of Cherry Hill Farms of Santaquin, Utah. Cherry Hill Farms has been on the H2A program for nine years, and the farm is a third-generation business.

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