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Opinion: The real culprit behind inflated grocery store prices? Look to the farm

Grocery store bills are hurting American families, but the roots of these high prices can be traced back to the farm

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Tony Chacon watches as Joel Sauno empties a bucket of freshly picked cherries at South Shore Farms in Utah.

Tony Chacon, South Shore Farms foreman, watches as Joel Sauno, who is from Mexico and has an H-2A visa for temporary agricultural workers, empties a bucket of freshly picked cherries at South Shore Farms, which is owned by McMullin Orchards, in Utah County, near Spanish Fork, on Thursday, July 28, 2022.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Price increases for food and other items Utah families need every day are sure signs that inflation is alive and well and will continue to inflict pain on family budgets in the future. Most food items cost at least 10% more than last year and are still increasing. It is the biggest increase in 40 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As a farmer myself and someone who collaborates with farmers every day, I know that the farmworker shortage is one of the main reasons for these higher prices at the grocery store.

When farmers cannot find workers to harvest their crops or care for their livestock, it causes production setbacks, harvest losses and supply chain bottlenecks among other challenges, all of which increase costs to consumers and threaten farm family businesses. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, farmers in Utah and nationwide were facing a crisis in hiring workers. Now, the agricultural labor shortage is even worse. 

Without a labor solution, for the first time ever, the U.S. could become a net importer of food, according to an analysis from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That means we will be importing more food than we export. A nation that cannot feed itself is not secure.

Fortunately, there is a solution to this problem. In 2019 and 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act on a bipartisan basis. While not perfect, it is legislation that moves labor policy in the right direction. This is not a Democratic or Republican issue. Everyone needs to eat, and all families need more affordable prices. The bill provides legal status for undocumented immigrant farmworkers who agree to keep working in the agricultural sector and obey our laws. The bill also makes much needed reforms in the H-2A guest worker program, including allowing for year-round temporary workers.

The current H-2A guest worker program, passed in 1986, is long overdue for modernization. It was originally designed for fruit and vegetable farmers and sheep producing farms that hire seasonal workers to plant or harvest crops and care for sheep. The existing law specifically excludes dairy farms which need workers to care for livestock all year long. Any agricultural labor bill that moves forward needs to help farmers hire a continuous, affordable, available, legal workforce for all sectors of agriculture, including the experienced workers that we need to care for animals every day of the year.

Fixing the farmworker labor shortage would help farm productivity and prices at the grocery store. A recent study by Texas A&M International University showed that more migrant and H2-A guest workers are associated with lower inflation and lower food prices, including for milk, eggs, meat, fruits and vegetables. The study also showed that more migrant workers and H-2A guest workers are correlated with higher wages for American workers and lower unemployment, in addition to lower prices for consumers.

U.S. Sens. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Mike Bennet, D-Colo., are taking the lead on negotiating improvements on the House’s agricultural workforce solutions bill and bringing the legislation across the finish line. The Senate needs to pass a bipartisan bill before the end of the year. Utah Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney should engage in these negotiations and support efforts to pass this legislation. Farmers need a legal, stable workforce and Utah’s families need nutritious meals at prices they can afford.

After a few years of college, I came home to run our family dairy farm. After selling my portion of the farm to family members, I got into public service to help create better policies for farmers, small businesses and hardworking families. Being a successful farmer is difficult especially in these trying times. I do not want to see family farmers in Utah go out of business because they cannot find workers when a legislative solution in Congress could be close at hand.

American farmers are the best when it comes to applying new technology, innovation and sustainable practices into their farming operations, but we need more workers. The nation is counting on America’s farmers for food, fuel and clothing. With the right tools, they could be successful while providing for billions of people around the world. It has been more than three decades since Congress updated the immigration laws for the agricultural sector. It is time to get this problem solved. I hope the U.S. Senate acts without delay.

Utah Rep. Mike Kohler, R-Midway, is a small-business owner and farmer. He represents District 59.