U.S. produce growers require a lot of labor, but they face a labor crisis in getting enough workers in the field and the packing houses. Little Bear Produce, a grower-packer-shipper from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, grows various food crops. Bret Erickson, Little Bear Produce Executive Vice President, says they need hundreds of workers each year.
“At the peak of our season between harvesting on the farm and packing the product in the shed and getting it into the warehouses and out the back door and on the trucks, Little Bear Produce is probably employing close to 1,000 people directly or through the contractors. The labor challenge for us is tight in the field and it’s tight in the packing sheds and I foresee us utilizing H-2A in a really big way going in the future.”
However, the H-2A program is far from perfect, and reforms are needed to help lower the costs of labor and food.
“We’ve seen this coming a long, long, long time ago. The cost of using H-2A, it’s ridiculous. It is a very burdensome, cumbersome program to use. Unfortunately, it has become the only tool that we have available to us. Companies like ours, we continually are looking outside the borders of the United States to expand our growing programs because we can’t afford the labor we need, we don’t have the labor we need here, that’s why you see so many of the produce companies have an international footprint now.”
And consumers will continue to feel impacts from a lack of labor throughout the supply chain.
“If we don’t have labor, it’s going to impact you by driving up the cost of your fresh produce and the availability of your fresh produce. You’re not going to be able to get everything that you’re used to seeing because we’re not going to have the labor. And from a broad perspective as a population, the United States should be very concerned about nutrition security and where our food is coming from because currently the rise in imports is happening drastically. And producers in the United States are struggling to stay in business and closing up shops.”
Erickson says the Farm Workforce Modernization Act would help.
“We need help on this. This is the biggest threat to our business and to our livelihoods, is being able to secure the labor. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act has already been passed out of the House. It is now on the Senate side being worked on by Senators Crapo and Bennett. It needs to be put forward for a vote, and we need our Senators to support American fruit and vegetable producers and pass that bill.”
He adds farmers should stay engaged and in contact with their Senators and show support for the Farm Workforce Modernization Act.
“We can continue to beat our drum. I think getting engaged with your state trade associations, calling your congressman, calling your Senator, and the International Fresh Produce Association. But staying in the loop and educated on what’s happening on the labor front, talking to your elected representatives and telling them how it’s impacting your business giving them real numbers and not accepting no for an answer.”
Erickson adds now is the best chance for getting the legislation across the finish line.