Agriculture is on the front lines of the immigration debate in America and farmers, ranchers and growers desperately need a solution to the labor challenges they face, the American Farm Bureau Federation told Congress.

“Sustaining our current level of productivity is contingent on a stable, reliable and legal workforce. Nowhere is the problem more acute than in agriculture,” AFBF President Bob Stallman testified at a House Agriculture Committee hearing on the labor needs of American agriculture. “The labor situation on America’s farms and ranches is closely linked with the issue of immigration reform.”

To illustrate the severity of the problem, Stallman cited Labor Department surveys indicating that in 2001 and 2005, 53 percent of the hired crop labor force was not authorized to work in the U.S.

“We believe this is probably a low estimate because it is based on responses volunteered by individuals to government-authorized interviewers,” Stallman said. “It seems reasonable that at least some individuals surveyed did not volunteer that they were not legally authorized to work.”

Using National Agricultural Statistics Service figures that peg the number of non-family farm workers at 1 million, Farm Bureau estimates at least 500,000 agricultural workers in the U.S. lack proper authorization.

Analysis of additional NASS data reveals a progressive tightening in the supply of agricultural labor, according to AFBF. Farmers normally require the most labor for their operations during the third quarter of each year. But a comparison of the third quarter of 2005 to the third quarter one year later indicates there were 60,000 fewer farm workers during this critical time period in 2006.

The change in the balance between farm labor supply and demand is reflected in higher average wages for hired farm workers compared to other types of workers. According to the Labor Department, in 2005, hired farm workers earned an average of $11 to $12 per hour, compared to workers earning $6.65 per hour for food preparation, $11 per hour for janitorial jobs and $14.65 for construction labor. In fact, there are currently 10 million workers – more than 7 percent of the total U.S. workforce – who work for lower wages than they could earn in agriculture.

“Clearly, farmers are facing a difficult situation as they scramble for additional labor in an economy with a relatively low unemployment rate and a lack of individuals willing to work in agriculture,” Stallman said.

“Without a stable, legal supply of labor to replace currently unauthorized workers, the fresh fruit and vegetable sector could see U.S. production decline by up to $9 billion a year,” Stallman said. “Similarly, an abrupt loss of our labor supply could cause net farm income to drop by up to $5 billion annually.”

AFBF continues to urge members of Congress to set aside their partisan and ideological differences and do what is right for agriculture, and the U.S. as a whole, by approving national immigration legislation reform legislation without delay.