The confluence of labor needs, a large migrant workforce and immigration reform has long been recognized in the U.S. agricultural sector.

“One of the potentially positive issues I’ve heard … after the election is the need for immigration reform,” said Bob Stallman, American Farm Bureau Federation president, during a Nov. 9 conference call. “Of course, agriculture has a huge stake in what is done with an agriculture worker program for this country. We need the labor.

“I think two things are coming together to create a crack in the window of opportunity for us to proceed.”

First, according to Stallman, is “the real effects that some states have experienced (after) putting in really restrictive hiring laws.” Among the consequences of those laws were crops left to rot in some Southeast fields for lack of harvest crews.

Second, said Stallman, is “the political element — the discussion going on about dealing with immigration. So, we have a window of opportunity to work toward in the new Congress. We fully plan to do that.”

Now trying to build a coalition among agriculture and commodity groups, the AFBF has crafted an agriculture-specific proposal to provide migrant workers with an “ag card” — part of a temporary work program that would function alongside the H2-A visa program.

The AFBF “has worked over the past year to find a labor solution that works for all of agriculture,” says Kristi Boswell, AFBFdirector of congressional relations.“(We’ve looked for) something that works for a small grower in California and a dairy farmer in upstate New York.

“As components of that, we must address long-term and the transitionary, short-term labor problem. Part of the long-term solution is the creation of a new agricultural worker program that mimics the domestic workforce allowing growers to offer contracts and hire at-will. It also is a more market-based and flexible program in regard to labor standards and distinguishing factors from the H2-A program.

“It is not an H2-A reform but remedies the failings of H2-A. We feel it will be a better alternative to the H2-A program.”

In the short-term, says Boswell, “we recognize there is a large percentage of the agricultural workforce that is working with false documents. To ensure stability in the sector, we must have access to a legal workforce that can pass an E-Verify test while implementing the agricultural worker program.”

The AFBF has proposed work authorization for “a limited population of key workers that have agricultural experience and will continue to work in agriculture to remain in status on what we call an ‘ag card.’”

Boswell envisions the card would be biometric and carried to prove work authorization. “This would not be an H2-A reform but a new program. It would remedy the failings of H2-A and provide more flexibility than the H2-A program provides, but keeps the security and stability of the program.

“What we anticipate is this program would be better … and, eventually, H2-A will die on the vine. But growers need the stability of H2-A and the new agricultural worker visa program” would provide that while it would also be less expensive and rigid than H2-A.

Florida, which has a large migrant population working fields, would benefit from the proposed program.

“We’ve had some spot labor shortages but have been lucky over the last couple of years in that they’ve not been tremendously widespread,” says Kevin Morgan, director of agricultural policy at Florida Farm Bureau.“However, labor is so important to the types of crops we grow in the state that we’re always very fearful there will be labor shortages and we’ll lose crops in the field.

“There have been other areas around the country that had tremendous labor shortages in 2011. That’s something we always have to pay attention to.”

There are many facets to immigration reform that need to be addressed, says Morgan. “It’s very, very complex. Basically, what we have now isn’t working and is too expensive to use. We have to think a bit outside the box, make sure employees and employers are protected and everyone can move forward.

“Honestly, this is a national security issue. If this nation can’t feed itself — and the only way we can is to produce and harvest our own food here — and we don’t have access to a legal labor force that can’t be taken away at anytime, we can’t continue to grow the types of crops we do in Florida. So, this is an extremely important issue.”

Florida’s producers find the H2-A program “expensive and too cumbersome,” says Morgan. “They must be assured of legal labor when they need it, though, so some are willing to put up with all the regulatory hullaballoo that goes along with H2-A. Even so, H2-A is much, much too difficult and expensive for the majority of Florida producers.”

The “ag card” proposal came together after many years of work. “We knew we had to do something and kept working to come up with something viable,” says Morgan. “In the past, we’ve tried to come up with legislative solutions.

“A bit over a year ago, the (AFBF) put together a work group to try and solve the problem of composing a program that would work for all commodities, in all parts of the country for all sectors. That was kind of the premise when we began. The program also had to be flexible and market-based.

“There were many really good people in the work group from around the country. Some used H2-A, others didn’t. Some hired a local work force.”

According to Boswell, the internal work group that came up with the “ag card” proposal was comprised of state Farm Bureau staff from all regions and included the labor-intensive states of California, North Carolina, Michigan, Arizona, Louisiana, Washington, New Jersey, New York, Florida and Pennsylvania.

The group, she says, “are the guys who are dealing with this on the ground. They’re the ones talking to farmers, their members, and seeing first-hand what problems and difficulties members are facing.

“Because of that (the effort) was truly grass-roots. That was a positive. It wasn’t a process of D.C. lobbyists sitting in a room coming up with a solution that they think will work. This will actually work on the ground (and set in motion) by people experienced in the field.

“Farm Bureau is unique in our diverse membership. Because of that diversity, we face all sides of this issue. We have growers who use the H2-A program and have made it work, require the stability of the H2-A program, the contractual tie and the assurance they have knowing their workforce will be there in the morning.

“We also have members — on the West Coast, specifically — who are dealing with a more mobile, largely undocumented workforce. Luckily, they’ve continued to show up (to work fields). However, with the threat of E-Verify looming we know that workforce probably wouldn’t pass muster of that program.

“We must have a solution to make sure we have a legal, stable workforce in all sectors.”

The general concept is to design something strictly for agriculture.

“We’re not trying to include the construction industry,” says Morgan. “This is for agriculture alone. We feel agriculture has special needs.

“In Florida — and in a few other states — we have a huge labor force already here. They may or may not be using fraudulent documentation to gain employment. But there are a lot of workers here currently.

“One of the things we want out of a program is to provide the ability for those who are living in our communities now — who have kids in our school systems and are a part of the community and aren’t leaving — can still work in agriculture if they so desire. They’re trained and they’ve been here. Many of them are our foremen and higher-level employees.

“So, part of this ‘ag card’ would be to allow someone already here, or someone coming here, to have some kind of a work authorization document. It would allow them to legally work in agriculture.”

The proposal contains options for both contract workers and those employed at-will.

“The work group recommends under the contract option that the visa would be up to 12 months renewable,” says Boswell. “The worker would have a commitment to his home country of 30 days within a three-year period.”

The at-will branch of the proposal “is more reflective of the truly seasonal migrant workforce. Therefore, it would mean an 11-month set term visa that requires those workers to go home for 30 days every 12-month period.

“The reason for the distinction is (at-will jobs) are truly more seasonal versus a contract job where, say, a dairy farmer may need a year-round workforce.”

Asked if lawmakers have been approached about the proposal, Boswell says during the work group process “we were privileged to meet with House staff and Senators and staff that have been engaged in these issues. The work group truly tried to understand all dynamics of this issue...

“At this point, we’re at the first step in discussions with other ag interest groups. We’re not ‘shopping’ this to the Hill as an AFBF proposal. This is a first step in bringing a broader ag coalition together. From there, the coalition will bring it to (lawmakers).

“We hope to have legislation introduced in the next Congress.”

As for garnering support from agriculture and commodity groups, Boswell says the proposal “was approved by our board of directors on Oct. 3. Since then, we’ve had multiple meetings with the external groups, finding consensus and working through issues by using our recommendation as a starting point. … Those discussions are continuing — and will continue — until we have a consensus and can go forward on the Hill.”

How does she characterize those meetings?

“This issue has a lot of history. However, I truly believe the organizations have turned the page, are looking for a solution that works for all of agriculture and are willing to come together to work towards a consensus proposal.”

The market-based feature of the proposal would “allow a worker to enter into a contract and, once finished, they could go work for another contract employer in the United States,” says Boswell.

“On the at-will side, a worker could work for any registered employer so long as their 11-month visa term is still (in force).

“This would allow much more flexibility and mimics the current marketplace in the migrant stream of workers.

“All employers would need to register with the USDA and these workers would be required to work for USDA-registered employers. Also, an important feature is they couldn’t go unemployed for 30 consecutive days. They’d have to continue working to maintain their visa status.”