Sanner: Arkansas Agriculture Needs Immigration Reform

by Talk Business & Politics staff ([email protected]) 148 views 

Editor’s note: Harvey Joe Sanner is a retired rice farmer from Des Arc and is participating in #iFarmImmigration month by discussing the agriculture industry’s need for immigration reform.

Agriculture is most certainly a crucial pillar of the Arkansas economy.

It’s also a unique and diverse industry that includes: row crop production, rice, poultry, aquatic production of bait and food, fish, fruits, vegetables and other specialty crops, that when combined, contributes over $17 billion to our state’s economic output. The jobs created due to this economic activity exceed 250,000 and that is something to take pride in. In many areas of the state agriculture-related jobs are the only bright spot in our employment numbers.

To achieve this tremendous production, and the economic benefits associated with it, is not an easy task. Mother Nature can sometimes be challenging and we certainly don’t need man-made disasters added to those woes.

Having an available, and dependable, source of farm labor is a major concern for many farm operations. The Partnership for a New American Economy estimates that over $300 million is lost to America’s farmers due to labor shortages. This is especially true in the areas of dairy and specialty crops; that require physically demanding, manual labor. Many of these jobs are seasonal in nature which makes it difficult to fill those positions with American workers. The necessity for immigrant workers is simply a reality, especially during peak harvest times. Unfortunately the current Visa program, permitting temporary workers to enter the U.S, has become too complex and expensive while also diminishing the number of available workers.

Reforming our immigration system has been an ongoing process that has many political hurdles to overcome. Even with the encouraging progress made in the U.S. Senate this past year, there is more to be done before a real solution can be agreed on in the U.S. House of Representatives. While agriculture is not the only player involved, it will surely feel the impact more directly if Congress fails to enact reforms that hinder farmer’s ability to have a stable workforce.

The Agriculture Workforce Coalition notes that for every single farm worker an additional two to three jobs is created on the production, processing and transportation side of the agricultural industry. Careers in marketing, as well as those in research and development, provide attractive jobs with good wages and benefits for highly skilled workers. To make the economic contribution agriculture is capable of requires a wide range of talents and management skills from the field to the grocery shelf.

For the state of Arkansas, and the nation, to reap the rewards of this magnificent and unequaled production system of food and fiber the industry must be healthy. For that goal to be reached, we must have a stable supply of labor to plant the crop, tend to it, harvest it, process it, market it and transport it, and other goods to the consuming public. If we fail at any of these steps, we will subject ourselves, and our children, to more imported foods not always produced under the same health and safety scrutiny as American producers.

Another downside to relying on other nations for our food and fiber is the likelihood of dramatic price increases due to instability around the world, and that burden will be felt at the supermarket by all consumers.

The issue of immigration reform has been the cow’s tail for too long and it’s time Congress acted by doing its part to improve the health of our agricultural system that is envied worldwide.

The farm community needs immigration reform, rural communities need it, and American consumers need it. The farm community stands ready to meet its obligation, and all we ask of our government, is to be a partner as we continue to feed our people and a large part of the world’s population.