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Montana Ag Network: Potato farmers voice worker concerns

Posted at 11:45 AM, Mar 02, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-02 13:45:48-05

Potato farmers from Montana and across the nation were in Washington D.C. this past week, discussing issues that impact American agriculture on Capitol Hill. One matter that farmers urged elected official to resolve is the agriculture labor crisis.

“In Montana, for example, right now [in] the Bozeman area we have less than a 2% unemployment rate. It's not easy to find labor and we need help to harvest crops,” said Manhattan seed potato farmer Jason Kimm.

“We need help to plant crops and just takes a lot of labor force. And right now, we don't have good access to get them. And a lot of our friends in the agriculture industry are struggling with employees who don't know what their status is going to,” he added.

One of the clearest indicators of the scarcity of farm labor is that the H-2A Temporary Ag labor program saw labor positions requested and approved an increase from just over 48,000 in 2005 to nearly 243,000 in 2018 according to USDA.

Late last year the House passed the bipartisan Farm Workforce Modernization Act, a bill that most agriculture groups support.

“Making sure that we have a workforce in the agricultural sector. We want a legal workforce in the United States of America. And this bill allows this to happen,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA).

The National Potato Council and members of the House held a press conference on the steps of the Capitol urging the Senate to take up the legislation.

“We are here today to celebrate a great bipartisan vote in the House of Representatives. Passing the Farm Workforce Modernization Act was a great step forward towards solving the labor crisis in rural America,” said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID).

“Now it's time for the Senate to take up the bill. With new trade deals and markets opening for our agricultural commodities we need the labor to get the crops out of the ground and to the markets.

“Just yesterday, we saw new access for potatoes in China. This was great news. Now we need the labor to meet this new demand,” he concluded.

Kimm said seeing both parties work together on the ag labor issue is reassuring, "wWell, it’s reassuring and refreshing to see that happened in DC to see that both sides of the table working together. To see that we have the labor that we need to make this work,” Kimm said.

Agriculture labor not only impacts farmer's bottom lines, but also the price of food in the grocery store. If brought up in the Senate, both chambers would have to compromise and craft a bill that addresses issues that the Senate has with the existing legislation.