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Ag industry leaders urge U.S. Senate to continue work addressing ag labor shortage

Access to safe, legal and reliable immigrant workers vital for producers

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Alla Kureninova, operations manager for the Natural Beauty greenhouse in Sioux Falls and an AmericanHort member, speaks during a roundtable on immigrant worker legislation reform Friday, Sept. 2, 2022 at the South Dakota State Fair in Huron.
Photo Courtesy of Michael Deheeger / ABIC
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HURON, S.D. — The agriculture industry has been dealing with labor shortages for some time, and industry leaders are hoping the U.S. Senate can help provide a solution to those issues.

That was the message during a roundtable presentation Friday morning at the South Dakota State Fair in Huron, where representatives of various organizations spoke on the need for agriculture workforce reform for immigrant workers to help keep the American sector of agriculture vital.

“The ag labor shortage is not a new problem, but it is a problem that has grown in urgency,” said James O’Neill, director of outreach for American Business Immigration Coalition Action, which hosted the event.

The American Business Immigration Coalition Action (ABIC Action) is a group of over 1,200 diverse businesses and business associations that aims to provide a strong and effective voice seeking sensible immigration reforms to grow the economy and strengthen families, according to the group’s website.

The group is concerned about ongoing labor shortages affecting all facets of agriculture, with employers in South Dakota and across the nation finding it extremely difficult to fill open worker positions entirely with American employees. That, in turn, leads to higher production costs that get passed along to the consumer at the grocery store.

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Immigrants make up 7% of all workers in farming, fishing and forestry in South Dakota, according to the American Immigration Council, and their labor is strongly linked to food prices. Nationally, a study by Texas A&M International University indicates ensuring farmers have a stable, secure, reliable and legal workforce is crucial to answering food supply issues, combating inflation and lowering food prices.

The United States Department of Agriculture has also stated that next year the United States will be importing more agricultural goods than it exports for the first time ever.

“These are national security issues, as well,” said Enrique Sanchez, intermountain state director for ABIC Action. “Food security is national security, and a nation that cannot feed itself is not a nation that is secure.”

Dairy cows are pictured in a South Dakota dairy operation. (Erin Beck/For The Daily Republic)
The dairy industry is just one facet of the state and national agriculture community that is suffering from a farm labor shortage. Industry leaders are hoping for leaders in Washington, D.C. to improve immigrant labor laws to help with the problem.
Mitchell Republic File Photo

Work still needed

Those on hand for the roundtable are hoping for continued work on the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which passed the United States House of Representatives in 2021. That bill allows unlawfully present aliens — non-U.S. nationals — who are working in agriculture to receive Certified Agricultural Worker Status and, eventually, lawful permanent resident status. It also reforms the H-2A nonimmigrant (temporary) agricultural worker program and increases the number of people who can receive employment-based green cards by 40,000 per year.

Supporters of the legislation say it was a good start, but more needs to be done. Negotiations on improvements to the bill have been taken up by Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Sen. Mike Bennet, D-Colorado, and producers are hopeful they can bring solutions to current issues.

“Workforce shortages have been one of the greatest limiting factors for growth in U.S. agriculture, and it’s time we find a solution that works for everyone,” said Scott VanderWal, president of the board of the South Dakota Farm Bureau and vice president of the American Farm Bureau Federation. “We’re pleased to hear that conversations have picked up in the Senate in Washington, D.C. and we hope that will result in a bill that will provide a solution that is helpful to both the short term and the long term.”

VanderWal said his organization has concerns and would like to see some shortcomings addressed.

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“Key reforms that we would still like to see in this bill is ensuring a fair and competitive wage rate, setting limitations on the use of federal courts to solve workplace grievances and ensuring all of agriculture, including year-round workers, have access to H-2A visas,” VanderWal said.

According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, grocery bills are rising at the fastest pace in more than 40 years, and this year’s July 4 cookouts cost 17% more than last year and 27% more than before the pandemic. Prices for ground beef are up 36% from last summer, chicken breasts up 33%, pork and beans up 33%, pork chops up 31%, lemonade up 22%, and potato salad up 19%.

Across the state, housing has become more expensive with the rise in inflation, leaving some residents with few affordable options and others unable to afford buying a home or renting an apartment.

The South Dakota dairy industry is no stranger to labor shortages, said Marv Post, board chair for South Dakota Dairy Producers, and industry leaders have promoted labor reform for years.

“We see a rapid growth in dairy production, but we need workers. Dairy is a very labor-intensive business and we need workers for quality products on the farm,” Post said. “If we can have workers here that can process that dairy product into a finished product, that not only provides economic opportunities throughout the state of South Dakota and nationally but also gives us food security and food on those shelves, which we know was hurt so much during the pandemic.”

Worldwide issue

Having a dependable, legal immigrant labor force is a need not only in America, but worldwide, said Michael Crinion, a board member with Edge Dairy Cooperative. A native of Ireland who moved to South Dakota 18 years ago to work in the dairy industry, Crinion said the need for immigrant labor in agriculture is modern reality.

“Labor shortages in farm country hit crisis levels long ago, and they only continue to worsen. In the dairy industry, it is nearly impossible to fill all available positions with American citizens. That’s the simple and troubling truth of the matter,” Crinion said. “Demographics and labor patterns are changing, and the nature of the jobs are demanding. But this is not just an American phenomenon. Immigrant labor is also used in the dairy industry in Ireland and New Zealand and elsewhere.”

He also urged the Senate to continue the work that started in the House in 2021.

“It is essential congress act to ensure that we have access to a visa program for new workers while also protecting our current workers. The House recognized this when it passed the (Farm Workforce Modernization Act) last spring. We now need the senate to propose the solution,” Crinion said.

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Alla Kureninova, operations manager for the Natural Beauty greenhouse in Sioux Falls, is a native of Ukraine who moved to South Dakota 10 years ago as a migrant worker. Now living in Salem with her husband and son, she said she knows the impact good immigrant worker policy can have on the worker, employer and the public at large.

“You would ask why somebody with a degree would want to come to the United States and work at a greenhouse seasonally, and the answer is the same as it is for many migrant workers,” Kureninova. “And that is to come to the United States and get an opportunity to earn extra money to support my family back in Ukraine, to learn the language and experience the culture and the safety and security that the United States has to offer.”

Sensible immigrant worker rules benefit everyone involved, she said.

“This is what the H-2A Visa programs are all about. They’re changing lives, providing legal ways to enter the United States and earn money to support families back at home or support your own passions and dreams. And in turn migrant workers like me are still very excited to be putting years into this business and industry because it has allowed me to grow as a professional while supporting my family back home and here,” Kureninova.

She also urged the Senate to continue working to resolve issues that have driven up food supply and costs and threatens national food security, something that is affecting members of her family still in Ukraine.

“Let’s not wait until we lose that control completely, like my home country of Ukraine did already. Let’s not wait and lose control over the quality of the lives of our own families, the sustainability of our business, and for me, as a mom, the most important thing is access to quality food produced right here in the U.S.,” Koureninova said. “So we’re asking today to help us tackle the workforce challenges and shortages.”

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Greg Feenstra, vice president for the South Dakota Pork Producers Council, speaks at a roundtable on immigrant labor reform Friday, Sept. 2, 2022, at the South Dakota State Fair in Huron.
Photo Courtesy of Michael Deheeger / ABIC

Lawmakers urged to act

Greg Feenstra, vice president of the South Dakota Pork Producers Council, said the labor shortage is real and requires a solution.

“Like everyone else here, the pork industry suffers from labor shortages. We can automate some things, but not everything can be automated. We still need people to do the job. It’s a critical part of our industry that we find a workforce,” Feenstra said. “I don’t know that there is a perfect solution to the problem, but I know we have to work with our legislators and our other commodity groups to find a solution that can propel us into the future and take care of everything.”

O’Neill said upcoming negotiations in the Senate are important and that they hopefully lead to solutions quickly.

“This is a national security bill that allows us to make sure that United States food production stays, to the extent it can, in the United States. And it’s also legislation that will help fight inflation,” O’Neill said. “We need solutions as soon as possible. We cannot wait another year, and we’d like to see the Senate take action this year to fix the ag labor shortage to keep shelves stocked and lower food prices.”

Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at ekaufman@mitchellrepublic.com.
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