Sen. Romney Meets With Utah Farmers To Address Critical Worker Shortage
SANTAQUIN, Utah – An ongoing labor shortage has added to the troubles of Utah farmers who are also navigating a drought.
Sen. Mitt Romney met with some of those farmers in Payson Friday to discuss the labor shortage and possible solutions.
Summer can be bittersweet, especially on a farm where it’s easy to get picked over.
“So now the undocumented people don’t come over here,” one farmer explained to Romney during his visit to a cherry farm.
The labor shortage affecting farms has everyone concerned, including Romney.
During their meeting with the Utah senator, farmers addressed concerns about the drought, but they said the most immediate challenge they face is finding workers to harvest their crops.
Curtis Rowley, owner of Cherry Hill Farms, said it has been about 10 years since he had someone apply for work on his farm.
Farmers said locals are just not interested in the physically demanding work on the farm.
For decades, Utah County farmers said they relied on undocumented workers, but that changed with a crackdown on employers to verify their employees legal status before giving them work.
“The big shift why we don’t get people anymore undocumented is they started E-verify. E-verify killed anybody from showing,” Rowley said, adding that undocumented workers fear of deportation keeps them from openly seeking work opportunities.
In recent years, farmers said they’ve turned to sponsoring foreign seasonal workers through the H-2A Visa Program. The program allows farmers to employ foreign workers on a temporary basis, usually for several months. It requires employers to pay the worker’s transportation to and from their host country, cover housing costs, and set a wage rate.
However, they feel the current system doesn’t work for all of agriculture and is antiquated. For example, fruit processing facilities and dairy farms whose operations are considered “year-round” are not allowed to employee H-2A workers.
Furthermore, they feel the H-2A application process is lengthy, which can be inefficient with farmer’s constantly evolving needs based on crop yield and weather.
“People here face some tough times – they just can’t get labor. They need more people to come in to work. They would particularly like to get people coming in from Mexico legally, but the government slows down the process, makes it hard to hire workers,” said Romney. “If we can’t have workers, we’re not going to be able to feed our own people.”
Romney said he supports immigration policies for foreign seasonal farmworkers.
“There are two parts of immigration that I think about. One is the people who want to come and make this their permanent home. The other is people who are willing to come here to pick our crops – lettuce, cherries or apples,” Romney said. “They are willing to work on a temporary basis when we need it for harvest. We need those people. There’s no reason to limit those folks.”
Romney said he wants to help roll back the red tape farmers’ face. In an ideal world, he would give more local control on guest-worker visas.
“My own view is that each state should be able to go to the federal government and say, ‘This is the number of visas we need for our economy,'” he said.
“We need legal immigration in agriculture,” Romney added. “When I go back (to Washington, D.C.) I’m going to talk to two folks – one the secretary of labor and the other the secretary of agriculture – and say, ‘Look, we need to do a much better job with our visa program with agriculture workers coming in from Mexico.’”
Farmers like Sheryl Fowers, who runs a fruit ranch, said it’s about time.
“If we didn’t have the H2A workers, there would not be Utah fruit because there’s nobody else coming, knocking at the doors,” said Fowers, owner of Fowers Fruit Ranch LC.
Farmers said some farms are operating on only half of the manpower they need.
Currently, seasonal visa workers are only allowed to pick the fruit, so processing plants like Payson Growers rely on high school teens on summer break as well as specialized machines. However, farmers said they need more help, in particular, a skilled workforce. .
They said some tasks, like tending livestock and pruning or picking fresh produce, require a human hand.
For example, Kenyon Farley of Valley View Orchards, said he had to stop harvesting apples because of a lack of skilled field workers.
“My main crop for years was apples, and I literally had to get rid of it because I could not find help to harvest the apples. They’re more labor intensive than tart cherries,” Farley said.
In the end, farmers just hope to keep American-grown food on our tables.
“Most of the immigrants are willing to work in agriculture. There’s a real need for them. If we want a fresh salad bar, it’s the only way we’re going to have it,” Farley said.
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