Manifolds, Manolos & Manure...by Bona Heinsohn
Several years ago, my family and I expanded the number of cows we milked. By doing so, we expanded beyond the time capacity of just family members. Quite frankly it was one of the best and worst things we did. The increase in cows forced us to hire non-family employees, which forced us to manage employees’ schedules, invest in human resource services, and mediate workplace conflicts. It also allowed us the opportunity to take vacations and to have evenings off.
In spite of non-family employees, and with few exceptions, there’s always at least one Heinsohn at the farm or available at all times of the day.
In the early phases of our expansion, our non-family labor was Caucasian and from the nearby towns. Several were high school students or recent high school graduates. Despite good wages and being located near four towns, it became nearly impossible to find labor. Dairy cattle need to be milked twice a day regardless of the day of week, weather, holiday, or family commitments. Farm work is very labor-intensive. Like many of our neighboring farms, we transitioned to hiring primarily Hispanic labor.
Many of our employees have now been with us for over ten years. In many cases, we’ve employed more than just one member of their family. However, many of our employees are now plagued with concerns about their futures and the futures of their friends and colleagues. They’ve heard stories of families being separated and like their friends, they’ve changed their lives. They’ve changed how they get to work. What time they arrive. Where they shop. When they worship. And where they connect with friends. Of course, this level of fear is impacting their lives but also their work.
Our farm like countless U.S. farms face a critical shortage of workers. Native born citizens are largely unwilling to engage in the rigorous hours of livestock farming. For many farms, foreign workers who appear to have legal status and guest workers have filled this void.
Agricultural guest workers are admitted under a government sponsored temporary worker program known as H-2A. Under the guest worker program, the farmer bears the cost associated with the employees’ transportation into the U.S., housing while in the U.S., medical insurance, and return transportation.
However, the H-2A program is cumbersome and can result in significant delays. In its current form, the H-2A program isn’t able to respond to the marketplace making U.S. farms less competitive with foreign farmers and less reliable for the American consumer. A national survey of H-2A employers conducted by the National Council of Agricultural Employers, showed that administrative delays associated with the current program result in workers arriving on average 22 days after the date of need, causing an economic loss of nearly $320 million for farms that hire H-2A workers.
Our farm, like so many of our neighbors, have joined Farm Bureau’s effort to ensure that American agriculture has a legal, stable supply of workers. We’re asking for responsible legislative immigration reform that addresses border security, fixes the legal immigration system and provides farmers access to a legal and stable workforce.
Join us in that effort and ask your Congressman to support immigration reform.