I have talked with many farmers over the years who firmly state that they would not be in business if it weren’t for immigrant workers. They will also firmly repeat the familiar line that “Americans just won’t do this type of work.” We may be heading for a time when the truth of both of these statements will be tested.
Given the stated positions of the Trump administration on illegal immigration it is very likely that border security will be tightened over the next four years. Farmers I’m talking with indicate that the availability of immigrant workers is much tighter even now than it was just 3 or 4 years ago. This is due to increased enforcement on the border, economic growth in Mexico, and the demographic fact that there are fewer young Mexican men in that country’s population than there were a decade ago.
Immigration reform is certainly a possibility to create a new, legal way for workers to enter the U.S. and work for temporary periods of time. The government’s existing H2A guest worker program, in spite of it’s high cost and difficult paperwork, is an option for seasonal ag industries such as orchards. The dairy industry, however, being year-round employment, is specifically excluded from the H2A program. Any immigration reform creating broader legal status for workers is likely to increase the ability of farm workers to easily move from one job to another in this country, increasing competition for those workers. Farmers will be forced to compete directly with other industries, thus tightening the available supply of workers and likely driving up wages.
Individual farmers and related farm organizations need to begin planning for a future where labor is mobile, competitive, and more costly. This will involve strategic human resource (HR) planning to prepare both short- and long-term plans. Vermont is having a series of discussions among their dairy community to develop contingency plans in the event that the federal government begins to deport dairy workers. According to UVM Extension, 177 of 818 Vermont dairy farms use Latino workers. Possible ideas include: “training inmates to do the work, employing temporary workers or refugees and attempting to use foreign workers through a seasonal visa program.”
I am calling for Pennsylvania and adjacent states to begin similar strategic HR planning. Plans need to be made at the state and organization level but also at the individual business level. It is time for us to take a more proactive approach to this looming problem, perhaps we won’t find any great solutions but we’ve got to try. As General Dwight Eisenhower once said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”