Farmers look ahead to a year of unknowns

By Eric Mortenson, The Daily Astorian

farmer_unsplash_webMore water but maybe less regulation. Expanding yields and shrinking labor pools. Big Ag and Big Data taking root amid the blossoming of small farms. A political climate in which some want to drain the swamp while others clamor to conserve the watershed.

Got a crystal ball? Or, more in step with the times, a prognosticating drone? The agricultural outlook for 2017 is cloudy.

“I think we’re going into a very uncertain period for producers and the food system, because the new administration coming in will be a little less predictable, perhaps,” said Rose Hayden-Smith, a former county extension agent who edits the University of California’s “Food Observer” blog.

H-2A Questions

Washington state growers have turned increasingly to H-2A visa foreign guestworkers in recent years, hiring 13,641 in 2016. California, Oregon and Idaho use far fewer but are beginning to use more.

“There is an absolute shortage and as the economy picks up it will only get worse,” said Kerry Scott, program manager of masLabor in Lovingston, Virginia, the largest provider of H-2A (agricultural) and H-2B (nonagricultural) workers in the nation.

Answers to the labor shortage include mechanization and immigration reform. With the latter, growers want work authorization for illegal immigrants but the greater need, they say, is improvement or replacement of the H-2A program.

Frank Gasperini Jr., executive vice president of the National Council for Agricultural Employers, said producers who grow, pick and ship labor-intensive crops are concerned the new administration and Congress will move aggressively on border enforcement and electronic verification of employment eligibility, called E-Verify, without addressing the need for farmworkers.

“If that happens, it will be disastrous,” he said. Read more …