For generations, farmers across southern Colorado have shipped their prized potatoes, barley, pumpkins, Rocky Ford cantaloupes, Pueblo chiles, and other produce across the country. But every year, that job becomes harder as farmers scramble for fewer and fewer workers to plant and harvest their crops.
As the president of Action22, a business advocacy organization for southern Colorado, I frequently hear from members who are concerned about our regional labor supply. The story is always the same: The steady stream of immigrants who used to arrive each spring looking for work has slowed to a trickle and the ones here are aging out of agricultural work.
Between 2002 and 2014, the number of field and crop workers in Colorado, Nevada, and Utah declined by nearly 37%, according to New American Economy.
We need to be able to hire the workers we need. That’s why Action22 has joined more than 45 businesses, industry, and trade organizations across the state as part of the Colorado Business Coalition for Immigration Solutions to call for sensible immigration reform. We support policies that meet the needs of businesses while also prioritizing safe communities and secure borders.
Being able to run our farms at peak production is critical to our state’s economic recovery from COVID-19. The U.S. government has tried to fill our labor shortages during the growing season by issuing temporary visas to foreign laborers. Yet that program, which brings in mostly Hispanic workers, is highly unpopular.
Members tell me it’s prohibitively expensive and unreliable. Farmers have to pay for employees’ housing, transportation and visas, and workers often arrive late, which jeopardizes planting and harvesting time lines. Of course, we want to provide for our immigrant workers and treat them fairly. But temporary visas offer no security for anyone, farmers and workers alike.
Instead, we need modern immigration policies that address long-term labor needs. Our food supply depends on these immigrant workers, especially crops that must be pruned and picked by hand. Our members have long sought a solution; they’ve tried year after year to hire Americans. But few apply and fewer stay. American farmers want to do things the right way, so let’s help them by enacting smart, farm-friendly immigration policies.
As we continue to battle COVID-19 and look to the future, our leaders must ensure we have enough hands available to keep our communities thriving and fed.
Sara Blackhurst is the president of Action22, a business advocacy organization for southern Colorado.