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US Farm Labor Shortage: Affordable and Secure Food Act Fails to Pass in Congress Despite Increasing H-2A Visa Numbers

In the fiscal year 2021, the U.S. issued 258,000 H-2A visas to seasonal farm workers. That number is roughly double the visas issued in 2016. Even though demand and wages are up, supply is still stretched pretty thin, with an estimated 10 percent to 15 percent labor deficit in agriculture nationwide. For these reasons, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) introduced the Affordable and Secure Food Act (ASFA) in the lame-duck session in December 2022.

It failed to garner the necessary votes, despite initial support from Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), to make the final spending bill.

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If passed, the Affordable and Secure Food Act would have streamlined the H-2A program and established a path to citizenship. It also included a freeze on the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR), the state-by-state pay scale for H-2A workers. The AEWR rose to $16.34 in Colorado for 2023, up from $10.08 in 2013.

Representatives from Sen. Bennet’s office say he remains focused on the issue.

“It is obvious to everyone that our H-2A visa system is completely broken. America’s farms and ranches are short more than 100,000 workers to do the essential work of feeding this country,” Bennet explains in a statement to ColoradoBiz. 

“At the same time, hundreds of thousands of undocumented farm workers live in the shadows of our economy. The status quo is terrible for farm workers, it’s terrible for businesses and farms, and it’s terrible for American families who’ve seen their grocery bills skyrocket as a result of the farm labor crisis. Fixing our immigration system is a matter of economic security, food security and national security — and I will pursue every opportunity to pass my bill to reform the H-2A visa program, support undocumented farm workers, and secure our food supply.”

Many agriculture organizations backed the Affordable and Secure Food Act, including the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union (RMFU). “Not only would it have created a lot more flexibility within the H-2A program, like having staggered entry and an allowance for some year-round visas and some other important changes, changes to the Adverse Effect Wage Rate, but it also created essentially a path to citizenship for folks as well,” says Dan Waldvogle, RMFU’s director of external affairs. “We want to make sure they have a path forward to contribute to society, to raise a family, to make a better life and to pay taxes.”

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Waldvogle thinks the window has closed with the current 118th U.S. Congress. “Speaker McCarthy has voiced there likely won’t be immigration bills being brought forward, but it’s a critical question that needs answers and needs reform,” he says. “I was really hoping that we would get the support of some other Western Republican senators. Access to labor is a pretty universal problem in agriculture right now, especially in the West.”

It comes down to money: Only 14 percent of the food dollar goes to producers. “There’s less for keeping a farm or ranch in operation, there’s less for compensating their employees for the work they do,” Waldvogle says. “The big fear we have is we’re going to see some of the folks doing produce now, they’re going to go toward more mechanized production processes. So we’ll see more alfalfa and corn and less fruits and veggies.”

While Waldvogle says the problem needs a federal answer, the state’s enactment of Senate Bill 21-087 (SB21-087) into law two years ago has been met by pushback from many producers for what they term a one-size-fits-all approach.

David Harold of Tuxedo Corn Co. in Olathe recalls asking his banker if SB21-087 was going to make it harder to recruit seasonal workers. “He said, ‘This is the least of your problems. It doesn’t matter what law they pass, you’re going to have to raise your rates and redo how you think about labor, because Mexico’s middle class is growing.’”

Founded by John Harold, David’s father in 1986, Tuxedo Corn harvests sweet corn from 1,500 acres in the Olathe area with the help of 150 seasonal H-2A workers, largely from Mexico, every year. 

John’s reputation “for being a fair guy,” David says, has made it relatively easy to recruit workers to harvest sweet corn. Many people have worked for Tuxedo Corn seasonally for more than 30 years.

The sweet corn Tuxedo Corn grows is too tender to be mechanically harvested. The operation could switch to a different cultivar to automate the process, but that’s not on the table. “We’d rather work with people than machines,” David says. 

As the AEWR increases, “It’s getting harder and harder,” David says. “I’m surviving. I’ve raised my price.” The price of a box of corn has increased by about 50 percent since the AEWR was $9.88 in 2009, he notes.

Now growing peaches and wine grapes on 550 acres, Bruce Talbott’s family has farmed in Palisade since 1946. Labor is currently about 80 percent of Talbott Farms’ costs using H-2A workers primarily from Mexico and Honduras.

Talbott says the business left the H-2A program for three years after an audit he terms “a witch hunt” about a decade ago, but it could not rely on the local labor pool and re-entered the program circa 2015. “After three years, it didn’t matter how big a target we had on our back,” he says. “If we don’t do H-2A, we’ve got to quit planting peaches. We can’t get them harvested.”

Talbott Farms needs 40 workers for the growing season and another 20 for the harvest. A family-owned packing shed is not eligible for H-2A workers because it packs for other producers as well. “If we don’t pack for anybody else and maroon our neighbors, we are allowed to bring H-2A into the shed. We really hate to do that, but in the end, we may have no other choice.”

Talbott says the time for federal action is now.

“We need to update the [H-2A] program,” he says. “We’re going to have one shot at this. It’s taken 30 years to have the discussion at this level. If we get a Band-Aid, we’ll probably not hear about it for another 10 or 20 years.”

Talbott highlights a schism that makes reform difficult. “California’s highly diversified: There are 200 crops in the Central Valley and the San Joaquin Valley, and you have contractors that go around to work on citrus to stone fruits to lettuce to strawberries,” he notes. “Colorado and the Eastern United States, we don’t have a year-round ability to keep people, so they have to come and go seasonally.”

“The East Coast wants a good program. The West Coast wants legalization of the current workforce. I’m grossly oversimplifying it, but that’s the battle that’s gone on in agriculture, and if agriculture can’t come to an agreement, then everybody else says, ‘Why should we support this?’”

Marc Arnusch’s family has farmed in the Keenesburg area for more than 70 years. “Our family’s been in this area since 1952, when my grandparents came here from Austria,” Arnusch says. “Ironically, they came to this area as farm labor. They worked in the sugar beet fields, they worked on dairy farms, and livestock operations, and were able to buy their own farming operation in the late ‘50s.”

In 2012, Arnusch Farms’ 4,000-acre operation pivoted from onions to wheat and barley, largely for the state’s booming craft brewing industry, along with alfalfa and corn silage. The move was largely motivated by labor, or lack thereof. While onions required hand labor from about 300 seasonal workers to plant and harvest, grains can be mechanized and computerized.

“We had lost a number of crops that sat out in the field because we simply didn’t have workers to help harvest the crop,” Arnusch says. “We were simply looking for a skill that didn’t exist then and doesn’t appear like it exists now in the workforce, and that’s the skill of endurance. Doing something over and over and over again, for weeks and sometimes months on end.”

He adds, “If I had a more reliable supply or access to labor, I would definitely change my crop mix back to more value-added agriculture, but one that was more dependent on labor.”

Arnusch says the Affordable and Secure Food Act “makes sense,” and sees a disconnect between Washington, D.C., and the realities of the rest of the country. “We have a lot of workers who are making their way to the Denver metropolitan area — by the busload,” he notes. “How can we start targeting or directing some of those people to build positions here in rural Colorado? We need it.”


Denver-based writer Eric Peterson is the author of Frommer’s Colorado, Frommer’s Montana & Wyoming, Frommer’s Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks and the Ramble series of guidebooks, featuring first-person travelogues covering everything from atomic landmarks in New Mexico to celebrity gone wrong in Hollywood. Peterson has also recently written about backpacking in Yosemite, cross-country skiing in Yellowstone and downhill skiing in Colorado for such publications as Denver’s Westword and The New York Daily News. He can be reached at [email protected]