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Agriculture Labor Issues Troubling

A Treasure Valley orchard owner who recently placed a help-wanted ad seeking workers to pick fruit for $12 to $15 per hour learned how difficult it can be – even during a period of relatively high unemployment – to hire farmworkers.

In a story reported by Mitch Coffman at IdahoReporter.com, the orchard owner had about three months worth of work and based on production, pickers could earn upwards of $15 per hour. However, in spite of Idaho's 9.1 percent unemployment rate and Canyon County unemployment pegged at 12 percent, workers did not surface and the farmer eventually ended up asking the local sheriff's office to send out a work detail in order to get the fruit picked before it spoiled.

This experience is unsettling on many fronts and it shores up a long held belief among the agricultural community that migrant workers aren't taking jobs away from American citizens. It also helps to solidify the need for a guest worker program that rewards immigrant workers who are willing to fill a need. It's also interesting how trends point toward increasing demand for local food but not many people, even unemployed people, are willing to perform the hard, often tedious labor required on Idaho's farms and ranches.

"I just look at these reports that say there are 10,000 unemployed in Canyon County, but there really aren't many people that want to work," the farmer, who requested anonymity, said according to IdahoReporter.com.

When existing programs fail to satisfy labor needs, the Idaho Farm Bureau supports a system under which supplemental labor from other countries could be imported on a timely and flexible basis to work on farms and ranches. The current H-2A program does provide several thousand temporary farmworkers in Idaho every year. However, H2-A is overburdened with needless paperwork and bureaucratic roadblocks that make it inefficient. The program badly needs to be streamlined in order to allow workers to cross the border legally, to go to work, and then return to their homes in their native countries.

While H2-A does provide workers on hundreds of Idaho farms every year, workers are often detained or turned back at the border. Employers are frequently unable to find the workers they need when they need them. Complicating the matter is the fact that Idaho's dairy industry, the largest sector of Idaho's workforce to employ immigrant farmworkers, needs those workers for 12 months of the year.

Idaho Farm Bureau does not condone going around the system that's in place to provide farmers with a steady, reliable workforce, nor do we condone workers taking matters into their own hands and violating the borders of this nation. However, finding people, regardless of their citizenship, willing to put in long hours working on the land is a difficult proposition, as this incident in Canyon County demonstrates.