Farm labor bill down to the wire, with Ohio farmers playing significant role in getting it passed

Advocates: Bill would help farmers, immigrants, ease food costs

By: - December 15, 2022 4:50 am

Workers pick tomatoes at a farm owned and operated by Pacific Tomato Growers on Feb. 19, 2021 in Immokalee, Florida. The workers, who are in the country on an agricultural visa, are mostly from Mexico. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

This story has been updated with comments from Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.

Legislation that farmers say is necessary to ensure they have workers they need and to help bring down food costs appears to be coming down to a Christmas deadline. And, a prominent advocate said Wednesday, Ohio farmers are playing a major role in getting it passed.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act would change immigration rules for farmworkers and place temporary caps on their wages in exchange. In an October press conference, Erie County vegetable grower Bob Jones noted that the U.S. now imports more food than it exports and said that natural-born Americans aren’t interested in doing much of the agricultural work that needs to be done.

“We are either going to import workers or we’re going to import food,” he said then. “The choice is really that simple.”

The bill would create “certified agricultural worker” status for certain foreign farm employees, allowing them to stay in the United States for 5.5 years and could be extended. After meeting certain requirements, those workers would be able to apply for permanent-resident status.

Advocates say the temporary wage caps in the bill would allow farmers to operate more cheaply, while also cutting food waste — both of which would help ease inflating food costs. As it is, a third of edible produce isn’t harvested in part because of a lack of labor, said Arturo Castellanos-Canales of the National Immigration Forum.

A version of the legislation has passed the U.S. House and now it’s in the Senate as the lame-duck session winds down. Now the strategy is to build the Senate version into an omnibus spending bill, Rebecca Shi, executive director of the American Business Immigration Coalition, said in an interview Wednesday.

“It looks like we’re going to have the next week or so to make sure we add the Senate version of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act to it,” she said. “What’s really good is that the growers, dairy farmers, cattle and other producers all see the urgency in this. Even this morning, I’ve seen them — from Ohio in particular — reaching out to Sen. (Rob) Portman (R-Ohio) and others to add this.”

Shi said it’s especially pressing to pass the measure before Congress leaves town because vegetable prices are expected to rise 38% next year and dairy, cheese and eggs are expected to rise by 18%. 

“This bill really does cap those inflationary costs for especially those (farmers using immigrant workers) and keeps them in business and reduces the cost of food for all consumers,” Shi said.

With widespread Democratic support for the measure in hand, advocates have been focusing on Republicans, who also have numerous farmers among their constituents.

“We see this as a no-brainer and our growers and producers are out there trying to get lawmakers — Republicans in particular — to support it,” Shi said.

A spokeswoman for Portman, who is leaving the Senate after this term, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. But Shi said, “We’re hearing very positive things on Sen. Portman and his team.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Sherrod Brown seemed on board when asked if he supported the measures.

“Farmers and farm workers are critical to our nation’s food supply,” Brown said Thursday in an email. “Workers deserve fair wages and good working conditions.”

Shi stressed that the endgame is nearing for a measure that she said is good for everybody.

“Time is running out and this is a deal that reduces costs for consumers and farmers,” she said.



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Marty Schladen
Marty Schladen

Marty Schladen has been a reporter for decades, working in Indiana, Texas and other places before returning to his native Ohio to work at The Columbus Dispatch in 2017. He's won state and national journalism awards for investigations into utility regulation, public corruption, the environment, prescription drug spending and other matters.