Candidates Mum on Farm Labor Shortage

Nov 2, 2012

Increasingly, Kentucky’s farmers can’t find the help they need.  Agriculture experts blame the slow economy and a nationwide crackdown on undocumented workers. However, the debate over illegal immigration has not been a campaign issue in the Commonwealth.

Rick Alexander directs the Lexington chapter of the Agriculture Workforce Management Association.  The private organization helps farmers follow federal regulations that govern the employment of migrant workers from outside the United States.  Alexander says the labor shortage in Kentucky is nearing a crisis.

“And we’re just hearing horror stories.  I sent some emails to ag extension agents in the area, and they all come back to me that it was critical and there were crops that weren’t gonna be harvested.”

In part, the labor shortage is the result of increased demand for tobacco. Migrant laborers, who commonly come from Latin America, do everything from planting the leaf, to cutting it and hanging it in tobacco barns to dry.  This year, overseas demand for Kentucky grown leaf is very strong and Alexander says farmers need more help.

“Of course, we’ve also seen, particularly tobacco production increase the last year or so that what it was two or three years ago so that also has exacerbated the problem as well.”

University of Kentucky Agriculture Economist Will Snell agrees farm labor is one of the biggest challenges facing growers.  In part, Snell blames the shortage on government regulation. He says the seasonal worker certification program called H-2-A is difficult to work through. The federal program tracks temporary farm workers and ensures they return home at least once a year.

“You know, the current program is very cumbersome, very much a lot of record keeping.  It’s a very expensive program.  A wage rate, certainly above the minimum wage is established by the federal government and farmers have to pay workers comp, and transportation expenses and housing expenses.”

The farm labor shortage comes on the eve of an election, in which the debate over illegal immigration is often heated, and has placed politicians from rural states in a difficult position.  Farmers need help, but many voters worry undocumented workers take jobs away from legal residents. 

It’s an issue which hasn’t received much attention in central Kentucky’s Sixth Congressional District, where incumbent Democrat Ben Chandler is in a tight race with Republican challenger Andy Barr.  Chandler favors a program that allows workers free access to Kentucky’s fields, but, which also ensures their stay in temporary.

“Well you have to make sure they come in for a specific purpose and that they’re here temporarily and then they have to go home after the season is over, the agriculture season is over.”

The Democrat agrees the farm labor pool in central Kentucky has declined over the years.  Chandler blames increasingly strict rules that govern immigration.  Both Chander and opponent Andy Barr agree that system should be streamlined.  But, Barr favors a crackdown on illegal immigration that also ensures an adequate supply of farm labor.

“It needs to crack down on illegal immigration.  We need to beef up the borders.  We can’t tolerate any form of amnesty.  But, on the legal immigration side, we shouldn’t have a system that so complicated, so complex, so confusing that it actually encourages good people to break the law, accidentally.”

Instead of just focusing on border security, or a guest worker program, or e-verify, Barr says the nation needs comprehensive immigration reform.   That might be a difficult proposition.  For the first time, Congressman Ben Chandler says the farm bill has become very partisan.  He calls it another example of polarization in Congress, and such partisanship may mean comprehensive immigration reform will remain elusive.