by Courtney Llewellyn
“Without labor nothing prospers,” said ancient Greek scribe Sophocles. The ongoing pandemic has brought attention to the role the agricultural workforce plays in ensuring Americans (and the world) are fed. But there are still major labor issues to be decided – H-2A reform, COVID-19 workforce safety and nurturing the next generations of ag leaders. These were the topics covered by American Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall during his “Shaping the Future of Our Essential Agricultural Workforce” presentation during the virtual NASDA Winter Policy Conference.
“Our food system is a ‘just in time’ system. If anything interrupts that, the pipeline backs up,” Duvall began. “We were fortunate in that our systems adjusted in about 60 days [when the pandemic first struck].” But, he noted, ag can’t exist as an industry without good, experienced, hard-working individuals.
COVID has been an enormous additional cost throughout the ag industry, and CFAP helped with some of that, as did the CDC with advisory issues, Duvall said. Right now, AFB is trying to prioritize getting vaccines to farm workers.
As for H-2A, Duvall said, “We need a robust farmworker program that helps protect our national security. People want to know where their food comes from, and that is a national security issue. Environmentally, we need workers here who are skilled to do the right things on our farm. We can’t sustain ourselves if we can’t find good workers.” He added that the U.S. needs an affordable, financially sustainable plan for its farmers – including wages that are fair to both workers and farmers.
He also said it’s been encouraging to hear about immigration reform – and therefore ag labor reform – in Washington. A program that’s easier to navigate is needed. “We need to focus on what we need and what will work on the farm, and not go to the extreme right or left,” he said.
Duvall called for the development of a program that carries the industry into the future, not one that’s only seasonal. Year-round workers are necessary. “We think there’s an opportunity with this administration to fix some of those problems,” he said. “If we don’t get the right amount of workers, it will lead to us becoming more mechanized – with less jobs on the farm – and cause a lot of consolidations. Bigger farms will gobble the smaller farms up. People don’t want ag to be bigger. They want to continue to know who their farmer is. That was highlighted during COVID.”
Duvall wondered who the farmers of the future will be while noting the ag industry needs to be more inclusive. “We’re going to find even more ways for everybody to work together,” he said. “There are so many great opportunities in agriculture, but there are so many challenges coming down the pipe. We need more researchers, innovators, inventors and policymakers to do environmentally-friendly things in the future. We need the hardest workers and brightest minds available to our industry.”
Some of those minds are investors who are aware of the industry’s labor and climate issues. Duvall noted they’ve proven they want to be a part of the next step.
“We can’t be the one voice for American farmers if we’re not inclusive of everyone. It’s a new revolution of what we’re going to be doing in the future,” he stated. “Our farmers need to stay on the cutting edge. There are more jobs in agriculture than there are graduates of ag programs.” He recommended investing in FFA and 4-H to bolster ag workforce development.
And to assist young and beginning farmers, Duvall said the place to start work is with the new Farm Bill – and to continue to work on programs available through USDA available to them. “The second place is mentorships through Farm Bureau – we’d like to see that grow to help people,” he said. “We want to make sure everybody gets treated fairly and get more people involved so they can be set on path to success.” He added there are many programs available for young and veteran farmers. (Learn more about these programs at newfarmers.usda.gov and fb.org/programs/young-farmers-and-ranchers.)