Colorado farmers are suffering from a crippling labor crisis, and it has been getting worse for years. We simply don’t have the skilled workers we need to sustain a healthy, robust agriculture industry in the state for the long term.
What we do have is a bipartisan bill in the U.S. House of Representatives that has a real chance of helping farmers across Colorado and the U.S. with our devastating workforce shortages.
We need our Colorado members of Congress to act on this legislation now. The future of Colorado agriculture, and our economy, is at stake.
Agriculture has long been a source of pride for our state, and continues to play a critical role in Colorado’s economy. From Palisade peaches to Olathe sweet corn to Pueblo chiles to Rocky Ford cantaloupes to the many dairies in the northeast, our products are favorited both locally and across the nation because they are of the highest quality.
Furthermore, our farms form the economic backbone of our communities. According to an economic study from Feeding the Economy, agriculture is directly responsible for 420,000 jobs in state, which more than doubles when you factor in other jobs that are dependent on Colorado farmers, including restaurants, grocery stores and food manufacturing, processing and storage facilities. Taken together, these jobs account for over $40 billion in wages and $130 billion in economic activity.
It’s true: Colorado farm families and their employees feed our state’s economy.
However, the labor crunch facing Colorado farmers makes it harder by the day to continue putting food on America’s dinner tables. In one such tragic example, Sakata Farms in Brighton recently quit growing its famous sweet corn after 74 years of production — along with cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli — due to a chronic shortage of qualified workers. Perfectly good crops were left in the fields because of the lack of help to get them harvested.
This is the reality we face every day. There are not enough skilled people to work on our farms. There have been significant population, education and cultural shifts — in Colorado and throughout the country — that have left our farmers without an adequate source of local workers to milk our cows or harvest our fruits and vegetables.
Because of its unique challenges, such as the perishability of our crops or the unpredictability of Mother Nature, agriculture has an exceptional need for accessing a legal, stable and sufficient workforce. Yet the system farmers depend on for workers is broken, and fixing it will require an act of Congress and the firm support of our Colorado representatives.
Several times, including during the 2013 comprehensive immigration reform debate, we have been close to a legislative solution, but to no avail.
Now we have been given another chance. A hard-working, bipartisan group of lawmakers have moved an agriculture labor reform bill to the House floor.
The Farm Workforce Modernization Act would provide some relief for agriculture’s labor challenges in two ways. First, existing, experienced farmworkers would have the opportunity to earn legal status by continuing to work in agriculture. Second, the legislation would streamline the farm guest worker program and open it to farmers who currently cannot use the program, such as dairy farmers and producers of year-round crops.
The details of this bill have been crafted by a broad group of stakeholders, including worker rights advocates, farm organizations and agricultural employers, and contains many of the concepts that have previously been supported by Republicans and Democrats alike. As a result, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act is a bipartisan effort that represents a crucial first step toward finding a solution to the worsening farm labor crisis.
While this piece of legislation is not perfect, further improvements can only be made if the bill moves forward, which is why we call on our elected officials to back the Farm Workforce Modernization Act in both the House and the Senate. Support for this bill is support for our state economy and the future of farming in Colorado.
Robert Sakata is president of the Colorado Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association. He owns Sakata Farms in Brighton. Chris Kraft is chairman of Colorado Dairy Farmers. He owns Kraft Family Dairies in Fort Morgan.