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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.

READ: Taming Agriculture’s Energy Hogs 

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.”

READ: Colorado Agtech Hits Critical Mass

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]

How the Fort Collins Pig & The Plow Farmstead Bakery Became a Post-COVID Success Story

You may have read the popular Farming Fort Collins Blog turned online farm and ranch directory, turned e-zine, The Pig & The Plow: From the Field, but have you stopped by the Pig & Plow Farmstead Bakery and met the woman behind it all?  

Erica Glaze has been busy. After growing up in the fresh, local food scene of New England, she saw a need when she moved to this area back in 2003. “I worked for the Federal government for 3 years and the State for 10 years, but I’m not a good office person, I was ready for a change.” Her desire to connect people to good, local food was the catalyst behind the Farming Fort Collins Blog. The blog turned into an online farm and ranch directory in 2014, then the e-zine evolved to explore the local food scene more. In 2017 she bought her first oven and launched The Pig & The Plow Bakery out of a converted shipping container on her Farmstead.  

Erica connected with the Small Business Development Center through word of mouth and a mutual connection to an SBDC Consultant. “I took a start-up class and continued to move forward to figure out what was needed to take each next step.” She utilized the resources from the beginning and found a network of mentors. “I’m not afraid to raise my hand and ask for help. There are things you’re good at and things that don’t come naturally. With mentors it wasn’t just me, I had a huge network.”

READ — Modern Day Mentorship

The business consistently outgrew space after space. COVID could have devastated the business, but luckily Erica set it up right. “When COVID hit we had to stop our NOCO Meat Collective classes, the restaurants we supplied closed, and the Farmer’s Markets were halted. Luckily, we were already online and had a following. Within 24 hours we added other market partners to our website and continued selling.” COVID didn’t stop them from thinking about the future. In June of 2021, after outgrowing yet another space, they moved into the Colorado Feed & Grain in Timnath.  

The opportunity to move into their newest location at 140 Boardwalk Dr. in Fort Collins presented itself earlier this year and within two months was a done deal. The space was formerly a bakery but also includes a great area for retail. “My husband was always really supportive and handy. He bought me that first oven and built the shipping container. When we decided to move to our new location we knew he needed to be more involved, so he officially became part owner.” It only took three days to move and set up the shop. They opened on November 15th. 

The unique thing about the business is the attention to how they do things. “We’re not the only bakery in town, but we use local, organic ingredients to create a new twist on old classics.” One of Erica and her staff’s favorite parts of the business is exploring and blending food and culture to bring something new into the fold. No day is the same when you get to experiment and create.

READ — Rising Food Costs Create Unique Challenges for Hunger-Focused Agencies 

The future for The Pig & The Plow Bakery looks bright. She’s focusing on continuing to develop the community around the business. She loves building opportunities for collaboration and creating a place for people to come and grow. One thing she looks forward to is continuing to be a part of people’s special things, whether it’s baking goods for an occasion or as a treat. “We had a woman at the farmer’s market who saw our Danish bread and cried. She was homesick and so happy to see and experience something familiar.”  

Her advice for budding entrepreneurs is this: “Don’t waste your time figuring it all out on your own. Learn from other people’s mistakes. Find the experts and be open to expanding your network.” She also advises connecting with people in your industry, and not seeing them as just competition. “There’s room for everyone, the more we connect and help each other’s growth, it’s an awesome experience.”

She’s most proud of the business she built that continues to move forward. From a converted shipping container to having a great new space with the right equipment and a great team (The Pig & The Plow Bakery employs 1 full-time employee and 2 seasonal contractors), not to mention the people they’ve connected with along the way.

Since 1989, the Larimer Small Business Development Center Network (SBDC) has been dedicated to helping entrepreneurs and businesses start, grow and prosper through street-smart business education and assistance throughout Larimer County. 

We support the growth and resiliency of small businesses by providing free confidential business consulting, practical workshops & events, and connection to resources. Our consulting experts work in partnership to provide entrepreneurs with crucial information that can mean the difference between success and failure. Our vision is to be your premier, trusted choice for business consulting, training, and resources. 

Colorado Agtech Hits Critical Mass

A third-generation Colorado farmer, Marc Arnusch grows barley and other grains on 2,200 acres in the Prospect Valley east of Keenesburg. 

His son, Brett, joined Marc Arnusch Farms after he graduated from Colorado State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences in 2018. “We didn’t know if he’d come back to the farm or not,” Arnusch says. 

But Brett did come back to the farm, and as the chief technology officer implemented soil moisture probes and drone imaging. He also helped develop proprietary software to manage the farm’s operations. 

“Halfway through college, he discovered there was a whole new environment in production agriculture on the tech side,” Marc Says. 

Brett has implemented precision technology in the farm’s irrigation system while integrating a wide range of data on planting schedules, weather and crop protection into the farm’s decision-making process. 

“He’s really helped us find next-level efficiencies,” Marc says. “We’re just making decisions quicker, and decisions are made easier.” 

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One example: Soil moisture probes revealed some hail-stricken crops were not going to survive in summer 2018, so the farm turned off the spigots and other inputs. “We knew the crop was giving it up, and that saved us a significant amount of investment that ordinarily we would have put into the crop,” Marc says. 

Marc says he likes to be a smart adopter instead of an early one, but notes that the farm—and agriculture as a whole—is often on the cutting edge. “We’ve had autonomous, self-driving tractors since the early 2000s,” he notes. “Adopting the right technology on our farm has rewarded us so far.” 

The operation is currently beta-testing a sensor-driven irrigation system to more efficiently water the crops. “It’s basically looking inside the plant we can’t get inside of as farmers and agronomists.” 

“Without question, I would say technology has reduced our dependence on labor, and we’re coming up with better quality,” Marc says. “We have to continue to adopt these technologies to survive, evolve and innovate.”

Combine,machine,harvesting,in,rice,field

He adds, “Sustainability starts with having a profit, because if we can’t meet our obligations to others, we’re not going to be here.” 

Arnusch Farms is not unique. “Agriculture’s always been technologically sophisticated, it just doesn’t look like it to the outside observer,” says Gregory Graff, who has been researching the rise in investment in agtech at Colorado State University for nearly a decade. “People see lots of mud and broken-down equipment and stuff like that.” 

Annual worldwide investment in agtech was hovering around $200 million until it took off starting in 2007 and exploded when Monsanto bought weather modeling startup The Climate Corp. in 2013 for about $1 billion. 

“Suddenly, cha-ching!” says Graff, a professor in CSU’s Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics. “Venture capital more or less drank the Kool-Aid, whatever analogy you want, but they really bought the storyline that agriculture was an undiscovered behemoth of an industry ripe for disruption technologically.” 

While noting there was “a bit of hubris” in the investment community’s mindset, Graff points to AgFunder’s 2022 report as a sign of the times: It pegged foodtech and agtech investments at $52 billion worldwide in 2021, up a whopping 86% over 2020. Agtech is about a third of that, give or take.  

The numbers depend, of course, on what you count: Most agtech can be categorized as biotech, chemistry, software or mechanics, but some analysts lump in B2C platforms and other food-centric models. “It’s so diffuse, nobody understands how big it is,” Graff says. “And the venture capital investment has absolutely surged since that 2013 shot over the bow. These last 10 years have seen a runup of enormous scale.” 

How has all of this investment affected farmers and ranchers? “It’s given them password anxiety,” laughs Graff.  

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Passwords aside, he adds, “I think what you’ve seen the farmers doing is adopting piecemeal and pretty conservatively relative to what the tech optimists would have liked—or even would want you to believe, especially if you’re a VC investor thinking about putting money into them.” 

Regardless, Colorado is at the forefront, with an agtech cluster that’s gaining international attention. Startup Genome ranked Denver-Boulder fifth in the world for its agtech and food startup ecosystem in its 2022 report on the sector. “I can say confidently we’re one of the leading hubs in the country,” notes Graff, who tracks 110 active agtech companies in the state. “Silicon Valley always wins, no matter what, but they’re winning by less and less lately.” 

Saving labor with wireless cameras 

And many of Colorado’s ag-focused startups are gaining traction. Take Barn Owl Tech in Colorado Springs. Founder and CEO Josh Phifer was raised on livestock ranches in Wyoming and Nebraska. “I grew up with the problems of having assets spread out over dozens if not hundreds of square miles,” he says. 

After Phifer served in the U.S. Air Force, he saw the possibility of using wireless cameras on farms and ranches during his military experience and launched Barn Owl in 2016. 

“At a large farm or ranch, they spend about 30% of their labor literally just checking on things, driving around and checking on things,” Phifer says. “If you have a fully deployed set of cameras, you can cut that down by more than half, so you’re saving 15 to 20 percent of your overall labor. If you grew up in ranching, you know there’s always more work to do, so it’s not that we’re replacing labor, we’re just giving the time back to do more effective and
efficient things.”  

Revenue has been increasing at an annual clip of 250% in recent years, Phifer says, with about 60% of sales going to agricultural customers.  

“Farming has become very technology-dependent, everything from automated tractors to GPS-guided fertilizing and planting,” Phifer says. “The livestock side tends to be a little more old-school. Just by the nature of raising young animals, it has to be a more hands-on operation.”

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Not that livestock operations don’t have increasingly innovative options: Australia-based AgriWebb, offering livestock ranchers a cloud-based platform to manage their operations, chose Denver over Austin, Dallas and Salt Lake City for its North American headquarters in 2020. 

Denver “is the confluence of all of the things we were looking for,” says AgriWebb CEO Kevin Baum. “It’s got a great, thriving and growing technology scene, it is a regional headquarters for so many ag businesses and partners, it is geographically near where our market is in the middle of the country, it has a hub airport, and it’s a great place to live. It ticked all of our boxes, and it wasn’t much of a competition.”

Baum says livestock ranching has historically been “largely run by anecdote, which is a theme we’ve found all around the world. Most farms are managed on pen and paper.” 

AgriWebb has gained traction since launching the platform in Australia in late 2015. “There was rapid adoption,” Baum says. “We’ve got about 12,000 users today. Right now, we’ve got about 17.5 million animals on the platform, which is eight times our closest competitor.” 

The first employee in Denver, Coby Buck is a fifth-generation rancher. His family’s Wray Ranch in northeastern Colorado became an AgriWebb user soon after he joined the company, and it immediately paid dividends. 

“They realized they were overfeeding their cattle in winter,” Baum says. “It was just bang! $80,000 in annual savings.” 

That sort of anecdote has been part of the industry for millennia. “Agriculture has been developing technology since the beginning. It’s the original technology. That’s how you keep up,” he says. 

“The next wave of that is digital adoption. Data is a tool. It is not a replacement. You still need that farmer, you still need that expertise, you need someone who knows what to do with the data.” 

 

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]