For farmers, immigration isn’t a citizenship issue, nor a concern over borders. It’s a real-life survival concern since not having enough hands to milk cows, plant crops, harvest and deliver directly affects the food supply chain where 2 percent of the population is still expected to feed 9 billion people by 2050.

In Pennsylvania, where agriculture remains the state’s No. 1 industry, generating $6.7 billion in cash receipts and $67 billion in total economic impact per year, the commonwealth’s producers and related agricultural businesses depend upon a reliable, trained and legal workforce to produce a safe, secure food supply. The industry requires meaningful needs-specific immigration reform that can address the antiquated visa system, the temporary worker program and a means of uniformly enforcing compliance.

Reform is top of mind

Outspoken insiders like Chris R. Herr, executive vice-president of PennAg Industries Association, and others consider federal immigration reform a primary concern. PennAg represents 500 agricultural businesses in the state. A lobbying organization, it works with state government, urging the engagement of an entire congressional delegation, and encouraging the body to rise above national rhetoric and fix a problem that desperately needs fixing. PennAg has even created an essential worker committee to focus on workforce needs to help ensure its membership has means to support a stable supply of employees.

“Farms have changed,” Herr said. “There are larger farms with a higher percentage of farm product. Farmers have changed, and less are staying in. The average farmer’s age continues to go up, and if you have 5 million laying hens, or 1,800 cows that require milking, you need more help (essential workers) to do those jobs.”

Even the most traditional of Pennsylvania’s farms, those owned by the Amish, see a need to hire such help – largely Mexicans. In a few years, there will be 34,000 more available agricultural jobs than the nation has new agricultural college graduates to fill them, he said. “There’s a void everywhere,” Herr, a one-time state deputy agricultural secretary, said. “It’s a real issue.”

The freedom to work here for a period of time, return home, and then come back is the real issue and the major change in the last five to 10 years, because of the pressure put on policing the borders. While other essential workers have been here – many of them grandfathered in amnesty since Ronald Reagan’s Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 – they’re now 60-65 years old, slowing down or no longer available. There was a time when the government may have turned a blind eye, but now there’s a second generation – and they’re more of a necessity. “Many of the farm products we have we would not have without the immigrant help that we have,” Herr said.

State’s ag wish list

Pennsylvania agriculture’s wish list includes convincing Congress to carve out immigration reform for agriculture alone – pragmatically sorting out the industry-specific niche – instead of waiting to find a comprehensive single-fix solution. In other words, farmers want a piecemeal plan adjusted for agriculture, separating it from all other immigration issues as a unique case, one in which more enforcement is managed on a farm-to-farm basis, one with more home control, one in which foreign workers’ backgrounds can be checked in a timely fashion, and one in which the government can make sure that a farm that seeks essential workers can support and afford them while not displacing American workers. “It’s easier to keep tabs on 5,000 to 10,000 farms than 10 million people,” one insider said.

“I see more frustration from my membership, and a hopeless feeling that nothing will get done, especially with rhetoric coming out of the presidential race,” Herr said.

Evolution of essential workers

One energetic hands-on proponent of immigration reform is Michael Melhorn. His operation, Main Joy Unlimited Inc. in Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, employs 35 to 42 in what’s a for-hire poultry handling company. Ninety-five percent of his payroll is essential workers who largely work in crews to load live poultry, some 24 to 26 million birds a year.

In the mid-1980s with his then-father’s company, the business was using exclusively traditional labor. But then the same “disconnect from the farm” that Herr referenced led to native help that was “less and less attractive.” By the mid-90s, the switch was to essential workers. Good traditional labor became less reliable and available. Americans simply won’t do these farm jobs at any wage, Herr said, and there’s compelling evidence to prove that.

“It was not a money issue or decision, but rather a willingness to do the work, or even apply for the jobs,” Melhorn said. “Despite advertising, American workers became increasingly reluctant to engage with agriculture. Word-of-mouth was enough to attract essential workers.

“It’s how you treat these guys – giving them the respect they deserve,” said Melhorn, whose operation even pays for immigration attorney representation for its workforce. “These guys are helping the population, not detracting from it.”

Now, he said immigration reform is “sad,” and many people “live in fear.” “The indecision in the government doesn’t allow us to recruit for the next generation (his industry needs to project supply and demand three years ahead because of the life cycle of poultry),” Melhorn said. “We’re trying to do proactive things, so we have to be involved in politics. We have pushed back just to have a voice, but there’s never a reform that’s robust. It makes you cynical.”

Farmers are diplomatic and productive people, he said, but the current system is not a productive means of supporting a long-term workforce that’s reliable. “You can tell your story to an individual politician, and he shakes his head in agreement, but then when he becomes part of a larger group he becomes a pawn and thinks differently,” Melhorn said.

State’s supportive position

Speaking on behalf of Scott Sheely, the new workforce coordinator for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, Brandi Hunter-Davenport, the department’s press secretary, said the department is leading a workforce development initiative to help identify and secure the needed talent pool for the agricultural industry as well as to develop gateways from the classroom to careers so more students enter the agriculture workforce upon graduation.

The department has also:

  • Initiated the process of developing more skill training to address major gaps in the education and training system.
  • Many of these individuals are able to provide the career pipelines to help transition students from the classroom to careers in agriculture.
  • Hired Sheely, formerly executive director of the Lancaster County Workforce Investment Board and the Lancaster County Agriculture point person, for the issue.
  • In cooperation with employers and other stakeholders, identified 25-plus occupations that will be the demand-driven jobs of the industry for the future.
  • Begun the development of career information on all of those occupations that will be shared broadly with government and industry partners as well as with the public at the 100th Pennsylvania Farm Show in January 2016.
  • Reached out to state government and beyond to explore ways to better connect with more non-traditional sources of labor (veterans, refugees, returning citizens and others).

“It’s a national security issue,” PennAg’s Herr said. “Food is taken for granted, so production has been forced offshore, and that gets us to where we were with energy here. Now energy is making a turnaround, and now we’re relying less on the third world for energy but more and more on foreign countries for food. I’m not sure what it will take,” he said. “It’s one of our most baffling issues. If there’s a break in our food system – a legitimate issue – maybe that’s what it takes.”

Cover photo: cjmckendry/istock