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How immigration reform could lower your grocery bill

Unless farmers can find workers, food prices will continue to rise, experts say

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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

Eggs, fruit, bacon, milk — all are more expensive now than they were a year ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Ground coffee prices increased nearly 15% in the past year, while citrus shot up 18%.

A number of factors play into the rising prices. The war in Ukraine, a country dubbed the breadbasket of Europe, has resulted in global food shortages, while bad weather in the U.S. is hurting crop yields. Current inflation also means goods are going up across the board.

And while there is no silver bullet, experts say fixing America’s outdated agricultural labor system, where the last reforms came under President Ronald Reagan decades ago, will provide immediate relief to both farmers and consumers, alleviating the nationwide worker shortage that has caused grocery prices to skyrocket.

Congress’ answer is the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, the framework for which has already passed the House. While many immigration and agriculture advocates support the bill, it has some critics in Utah who want to see more comprehensive reforms.

“Congress hasn’t dealt with agricultural immigration reform for close to 35 years,” said Ron Gibson, a dairy and produce farmer, and president of the Utah Farm Bureau. “We might not get another crack at this for 35 more years.”

Domestic labor shortages and an ‘onerous’ visa system

The COVID-19 pandemic upended the U.S. labor market, making it harder for all employers to retain talent, farmers included.

“We’ve seen how disruptions to the supply chain and a shortage of reliable workers has catastrophic impacts on businesses and on entire industries. We’ve gotten a glimpse of what food shortages look like,” said Joel Anderson, executive director of the Snake River Farmers Association in Idaho. “We have seen bare shelves in our grocery stores.”

On Wednesday, Anderson joined stakeholders in the agriculture industry from around the country to discuss immigration reform, urging the U.S. Senate to pass the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which among other things, would create a new temporary worker visa program.

More workers means increased efficiency for farms, which will drive down the price of goods, according to the stakeholders.

And at a time when the U.S. is under increased pressure to export food and the war in Ukraine creating global shortages, the already stressed agricultural labor market is nearing a breaking point.

“Unless milk is eight bucks a gallon, this whole thing has to change,” Gibson said.

Domestic worker shortages have squeezed the agricultural industry for years, particularly for seasonal jobs. In 2012, the Snake River Farmers Association applied for 2,300 seasonal worker positions — 658 applicants were domestic workers. Only 23 ended up being interested in the work, and accepted positions.

It’s since worsened, says Anderson. This year, the association had 5,800 open positions. Just 26 U.S. workers applied, and a paltry four accepted the offer.

“The worsening shortage of domestic workers is the greatest challenge and one of the biggest threats to our membership and to agriculture across the board,” Anderson said.

Tara Smith, a partner of Smith Farms of Maine and Florida, pointed to an example out of Yuma, Arizona, where a farm was looking for upwards of 4,000 temporary workers to harvest vegetables. They had four American applicants.

“Of the four, only one actually showed up. That one individual who showed up stayed on the harvest crew for about seven hours and then quit,” Smith said.

Stories like that are commonplace, forcing farms to rely, sometimes entirely, on H-2 visas, designed for noncitizens to work temporarily in the U.S. agriculture industry.

The H-2 program is a golden ticket for most migrant workers. “They provide an honest way to come to the U.S. and earn money, support families or just support your passions in your dreams,” said Alla Kureninova, the operations manager at a South Dakota farm and immigrant from Ukraine.

But the current system can be clunky, and farmers described a process burdened by paperwork, where they need to submit requests far in advance of planting crops, can’t easily extend visas for employees and are often required to pay high moving and training costs for a seasonal, foreign workforce.

“Onerous is the word that comes to mind,” said Robert McMullin, of McMullin Orchards in Spanish Fork, who employs 39 seasonal workers with H-2A visas. “It just takes so much to go through all the hoops to get these guys ... there’s visa fees, government fees, we pay for transportation, we provide housing when they get here.”

That leads some farmers to lean heavily on undocumented migrant workers — nearly 50% of the country’s farmworkers are unauthorized, 25% of them from Mexico, according to AgAmerica, a lending company.

Even with its flaws, McMullin’s farm stays afloat because of the H-2 visa program.

“We would absolutely not be in business if we didn’t have these H-2A workers,” he said. “We are very grateful for them.”

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act explained

The House in 2021 passed bipartisan legislation that would allow foreign farmworkers to stay in the U.S. year round, creating the framework for the Senate to pass the Farm Workforce Modernization Act

Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, are hoping to get a vote on a companion package before the August recess.

“With the high prices Americans are seeing at the grocery store, we should pass this bill as soon as possible,” Bennet said in a statement to Politico.

The bill consists of three main immigration reforms aimed at helping the agricultural industry:

  • Create a pathway to legal status for current undocumented agricultural workers.
  • Reform the H-2 visa program, creating a year-round option, more wage consistency, mandated housing for migrant workers and streamlining the application process for employers.
  • Direct employers to create an “E-verify” program to ensure their workers are authorized.

The bill is framed as a vital step in driving down food prices, and lifting the agricultural industry out of its decadeslong worker shortage.

But Gibson, with the Utah Farm Bureau, says the bill has some shortcomings.

For one, it caps the number of year-round visas at 20,000, with half of them likely set aside for dairy farmers.

“The state of Idaho has 10,000 workers in the dairy industry,” Gibson said. “Idaho alone can take the entire allotment for the dairy industry, and that leaves everybody else out.”

The visa cap in turn creates problems with the E-verify program, Gibson said, forcing farmers to confirm the workers are authorized in a system “that gives us a tenth of the workers we need.”

“You’re going to literally starve America if you do that,” said Gibson, who noted that with “just three or four tweaks to this bill” the farm bureau can get behind it.

Still, even Crapo says voters shouldn’t hold their breath on the package moving through the Senate and onto President Joe Biden’s desk.

“I don’t see it happening before the August recess,” he told Politico.