Area farmers ask federal lawmakers for help with worker shortages

Famers talk with state Del. Tony Wilt (center) and Republican U.S. Reps. Ben Cline of Virginia’s 6th District and Glenn Thompson of Pennsylvania discuss farm-related issues Wednesday. (Photo by Logan Roddy)

By Logan Roddy, senior contributor

Harrisonburg-area farmers told U.S. Rep. Ben Cline, along with the U.S. House Agriculture Committee’s top Republican, that one of the biggest challenges they face is a worker shortage — and one way to address it could be changes to the temporary and migrant worker visa programs. 

Cline, the Republican who represents Virginia’s 6th District that covers much of the Valley, accompanied by U.S. Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pennsylvania, toured farms in five areas across the Shenandoah Valley to learn more about farmers’ challenges and priorities. Their trip comes as the U.S. House Agriculture Committee continues crafting the next farm bill— an update of the measure last passed in 2018. 

At the final stop at Lohr’s Farm in Harrisonburg, Matt Lohr told the Republican lawmakers the environmental pressures of climate change and the labor shortage impacting the poultry industry are hitting area farmers hard.

“We produce poultry for Pilgrim’s Pride,” Lohr said. “And so that’s where if they don’t have workers to run the processing plant or drive the feed trucks or the delivery trucks then that certainly impacts us as producers.”

He said that a large part of the agriculture industry relies on migrant labor.

For many of those positions, farmers and poultry plants have “just a hard time finding folks here in communities that are willing to do it,” he said. 

The H-2A and H-2B temporary worker classifications allow U.S. employers to hire foriegn nationals to fill seasonal and certain other jobs for which U.S. workers are unavailable.

“And so the H-2A and H-2B programs are complex but there’s a lot of hoops that people have to jump through in order to attract that labor force,” Lohr said. “So, I still think there’s a lot we can do on the agricultural labor side of those bills to be able to make it easier for folks to come in and do those types of jobs.” 

Thompson said he is focused on trying to make agriculture profitable because “the workforce issue in agriculture is a food security issue.”

Thompson was among a group of lawmakers from both parties who didn’t want to see changes to the estate tax that might affect people’s ability to inherit family farms as part of tax changes to help cover some of Democrats’ spending priorities. Upon a farm owner’s death, the next generation can inherit it without paying taxes on assets worth up to $11.7 million. That will remain the cap. 

But beyond ensuring there are still farmers to put food on the tables, Thompson said there should be a greater focus on expanding both foreign and domestic markets for all commodities “because we have to be on offense of creating conditions by which farming is once again profitable.”

“You’ve got great land, great commodities, but if you don’t have the workforce, this country goes hungry,” Thompson said. “So we’ve got to stop incentivizing US citizens not to work, so the incentive is to go to work, and the reward is for people who go to work, not for folks who sit at home.”

U.S. Rep. Ben Cline surveys the land at Lohr’s Farm in Harrisonburg during a listening tour stop Wednesday.

Reaction to infrastructure bill 

Thompson also said he was disappointed in the infrastructure bill making its way through Congress because it provides no money to the Department of Agriculture. The Democratic-controlled House and divided Senate are trying to nail down details of the proposal, initially slated to cost $3.5 trillion. Biden said this week it could be cut to $2.3 trillion or less. 

“We’ve advanced some great rural broadband legislation earlier this year, and I think that’s an amenity that’s absolutely necessary, absolutely after 2020,” Thompson said. “When it comes to infrastructure, I put it at the top of the list. That makes rural America have a fair fight, whether it’s marketing your farm commodities or telehealth and tele-education, and precision agriculture.”

He added that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is what serves rural America, and it’s really up to them to “bridge the digital divide” in the country.

Cline also said he wasn’t happy with some of the provisions in the infrastructure bill and said he thinks Congress should start over and re-write it.

Democrats have championed the bill as rebuilding the American middle class, extending some programs, such as helping parents pay for childcare, providing two years of pre-kindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds, and providing 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave.

“This bill only has 10-15% of the bill related to roads and bridges,” Cline said. “And bridges are very important to this area.” 

For instance, he said if a bridge is in disrepair, unsafe or closed down, ”you add not just one or two miles, you add dozens of miles to a route for farmers, so that becomes a real problem.” 

Because of so many stream crossings in the Valley, farmers often have to find alternate transport routes.

“We need to start over and we need to look at more of a 60-70% roads and bridges infrastructure bill,” Cline said.

He also said the proposed cost to widen I-81 is $3.3 billion. And, as it stands now, Virginia’s share of the infrastructure spending is slated to be $2.2 billion, he said.

“So it’s nothing,” Cline said. “So we gotta start over, with roads and bridges focused, and call it infrastructure, and then we can also talk about other ways to support our social services safety net, but that needs to be a different conversation — but not linking the two.”

The next farm bill 

Some of the changes Cline said he hopes to address between the 2018 Farm Bill and the new one are ensuring that farmers are still being supported and “improving our trade posture vis-a-vis other countries.”

“Making sure that what’s grown here is competitive around the world. We are feeding the world here in this country and farmers do such a great job, we want to be supportive,” Cline said. “And also making sure that when it comes to advancing technologies that broadband is available, so making sure that we improve availability and accessibility to broadband in rural areas is something that is pursued as well.”

When asked if he believes that what farmers in the Shenandoah Valley receive in terms of federal funding or subsidies is sufficient, he said “there’s always room for improvement.”

“There’s always room to make sure the programs better impact this part of Virginia,” Cline said. “So as we work up this farm bill, I’m open to improving existing programs to make sure they’re more efficient and effective and help this area better.”

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