The U.S. Congress this week began discussing legislation that could help stabilize the labor market for U.S. agriculture. The bill would create a new designation known as H-2C aimed at providing a legal supply of workers for U.S. farms. H-2C would replace the H-2A program, which is broadly considered to be ineffective. The new program offers new regulations for housing, transportation and touchback periods for farm workers.
Jennifer Ifft, an assistant professor in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University, studies the impact of public policy on farm management. She says that the proposed reforms could help mitigate some – but not all – of the labor market challenges faced by U.S. farms.
“U.S. farms that use hired labor—largely fruit, vegetable and livestock farms—are facing an environment of decreasing labor supply and escalating wage costs. While immigration reform could certainly help some farms adapt, for multiple reasons, these problems are not going away.
“For example, two-thirds of all fruits and vegetables are produced in states with substantial scheduled minimum wage increases. Guest worker programs can provide more reliable access to labor, but generally don’t lower costs.
“For farms with sufficient capacity and resources to use a guest worker program, the proposed H2-C program may help meet their labor needs. Farms with year-round labor requirements, including dairy farms, will begin to have access to a guest worker program that meets this need. More generally, if effective, H2-C could play a role in helping U.S. agriculture adapt to the changing farm labor environment and keep certain labor-intensive farm specializations here viable.