As the 113th Congress gets underway, it appears that both political parties are serious about tackling comprehensive immigration reform in 2013, for the first time in many years. A crucial piece of that package must address farm labor issues, a topic that has risen to the top of the policy agenda for AGree and many other groups. Wyoming rancher Pat O’Toole, an AGree Advisory Committee member, has strong views on this subject.
My name is Pat O'Toole, and I raise sheep and cattle on a landscape which includes parts of four counties on both sides of the Colorado-Wyoming state line, north of Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Five of my family members work with me full-time on the ranch and others help out, but the nature of our operation demands that we hire other workers. We depend on experienced sheepherders from Peru for year-round tending of the sheep, and seasonal sheep shearers. My family also raises several hundred mother cows in a cow-calf operation.
Like most farmers and ranchers in the West, my wife Sharon and I view access to foreign laborers (along with water) as top issues. When it’s time to shear the sheep, we contract with an experienced crew of Australian and New Zealand shearers. These crews travel all over the world, shearing hundreds of thousands of sheep as they follow the seasons. Sheep shearing is a disappearing skill among American-born workers. The difficulty for these highly skilled foreign shearers to obtain visas is becoming a crisis since sheep must be shorn in a timely manner each year.
We also employ sheepherders, almost all from Peru, who watch over our flocks. These workers must live in sheep wagons and move seasonally with the sheep. This requires a 24/7 presence with the animals year-round, in all weather conditions. Protecting the ewes and lambs from coyotes and other predators is a big part of their responsibilities. They work under three-year agreements, returning to Peru between contracts for at least three months to spend time with their families.
These visas are arranged through the H-2A seasonal agricultural worker program operated by the U.S. Department of Labor. The H-2A program generally meets our needs, though sometimes our ranch employs extra workers to insure our needs in the face of bureaucratic delays. However, I know from my experience with other members of the Family Farm Alliance, an organization that I currently lead, that the H-2A program works less well for other types of operations, such as specialty crop farms in California and Arizona. Some growers complain about the paperwork needed to fill slots for the relatively short harvest season. Out of an estimated 500,000 seasonal migrant workers in U.S. agriculture, less than 100,000 typically hold H-2A visas. A workable guest worker program must be put in place or I fear that many labor-intensive crops will no longer be grown in the U.S.
Farmers and ranchers like my family who use extensive hired (foreign) labor need the certainty that would come from comprehensive immigration reform and a more reliable supply of workers. All of us would like to see the threat of ICE (U.S Immigration & Customs Enforcement) raids suspended while the legislation is debated. Many of my sheep herders have worked on the ranch for several years (one for about 15 years) and take great pride in their work and can support their families handsomely back home on what they earn. My senior herder put two of his younger siblings through university and professional school in Peru and has bought a fleet of buses to operate when he retires. An effective guest worker program that is as diverse as the agricultural sector it serves is needed. It would benefit agriculture producers, much needed foreign workers, and the Americans who depend on agricultural products.