WASHINGTON — Specialty crop farmers need the U.S. Department of Agriculture to spend $10 million to $20 million a year on each major crop to offset labor shortages, rising costs and cutbacks in subsidies in past years, farm industry leaders said Wednesday.
Farmers told the House Agriculture Committee that the 2018 Farm Bill must include USDA programs and private sector investments focusing on improved technology and labor solutions.
A shrinking labor supply from Mexico, rising labor costs, a difficult risk management environment and funding cutbacks in the Farm Bill have worked against farmers, experts said.
The industry has lost about 140,000 foreign workers over the last five years, causing labor costs to rise as much as $8,400 per acre, said Wonderful Citrus Vice President Paul Heller.
Specialty crops receive 1 percent of current agriculture funding, and only 15 percent of agriculture funds have been devoted to specialty crop innovation in the past 30 years, farm groups said.
They said investments in mechanization and technology, which have reduced labor costs by as much as 50 percent, are important to offset the loss of workers, especially with the Trump administration’s efforts to severely curb immigration.
Land grant universities, like Texas A&M and others, have been the models of research and development in mechanization that often involves the private sector.
“To advance the progress for mechanization of specialty crops, a significant public-private investment in plant breeding and mechanical engineering is required,” said Paul Wenger of the California Farm Bureau Federation.
For instance, the federal Agriculture and Food Research Initiative has provided commercial lettuce breeding programs with a market value of $2.3 billion annually, said American Seed Association President Andrew LaVigne.
Federal crop insurance programs are targeted for a 36 percent cut by the Trump administration. But supporters say the programs are crucial, noting that the USDA’s Whole Farm Protection Program alone provides farmers with up to $8.5 million in subsidies to help mitigate disasters or worker shortages.
“There were some farmers in California that, without this program, were going to lose a $4 million crop because they did not have the labor to pick it,” Wenger said.
The guest worker program, which allows foreign workers to operate in the U.S. on a seasonal basis, needs to be expanded to ensure the long-term viability of the industry, experts said.
“We are not raising our children to become pickers,” Wenger said. “Our workers’ kids are not going to be strawberry pickers. If we do not have some reliable means of providing guest workers, how will [there] be a viable solution for the future?”