Panel addresses labor challenges facing agriculture, including worker shortages and immigration reform | TheFencePost.com

Panel addresses labor challenges facing agriculture, including worker shortages and immigration reform

Nikki Work

Anita Alves Pena of Colorado State University, left, and owner of Petrocco Farms, Dave Petrocco, right, watch as John Slutsky of La Luna Farms, center, comments on the labor challenges facing agriculture. Alves Pena moderated a panel with Petrocco, Slutsky and several others about ag labor Wednesday at the Union Colony Civic Center in Greeley.

Without immigrants, the modern agricultural system would fail, experts said May 18 at the Labor Matters in Agriculture seminar at the Union Colony Civic Center in Greeley.

Farm owners from the produce and dairy sectors, as well as representatives from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment and meatpacking giant JBS, spoke about challenges facing the agriculture industry at the event, which was put on by the Greeley Chamber of Commerce Agriculture Committee. About 20 people attended the seminar.

The bottom line was the ag workforce is shrinking and labor is hard to find. Without access to immigrant labor, farms such as Dave Petrocco's produce farms, which stretch from Brighton to Greeley, or John Slutsky's 2,800 cow-and-calf dairy in Wellington would go out of business.

"Nobody wants to do our work," said Slutsky, who employs 27 full-time workers at La Luna Dairy, 90 percent of whom are immigrants.

“We try to be advocates for immigration reform, but it’s pretty hard with the politics and the racism.”

When Slutsky and his wife started their dairy in 1981, they were working nearly 24 hours aperday, seven days per week. After a little while, he said they figured out that wasn't what a couple of hippies wanted to do, so they hired their first employee to milk cows. One employee turned to two, then a few, and as the operation grew, so did their workforce. Each time they hired, Slutsky said, he saw what the labor pool looked like, and it was mostly immigrants.

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"We embraced that, because they were doing work for us and making our business profitable," he said.

That's a mentality he said he doesn't see nationally, something he finds pretty hopeless.

"We have a tough row to hoe. I think there's so much hatred in our country and I'm pretty disappointed in my fellow citizens," Slutsky said. "We try to be advocates for immigration reform, but it's pretty hard with the politics and the racism."

Petrocco said a new approach to immigration reform is sorely needed. Petrocco employs about 350 seasonal farmworkers every year to work more than 3,000 acres of produce fields. He has trouble finding the workers, even though he uses the H2A program, a temporary migrant farmworker program which helps connect farmers with migrant workers and requires the farmer to provide the worker with housing, transportation, visa fees and more in addition to wages. The H2A program is financially burdensome for farmers, Petrocco said, but it's necessary if he wants any labor.

"I don't know how many more years we can compete (using H2A)," he said. "My wish is that we get a guest worker program that's more friendly — one that is fair to the worker and one that is also fair to the employer."

Olga Ruiz, who works with the Migrant Seasonal Farmworkers program under the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, said it's hard to track the number of migrant farmworkers in the state, because of outdated census numbers and a variety of ways to report the numbers. She said her guess is there are anywhere from 1,000-6,000 migrant farmworkers working in Colorado every year. That's not including permanent immigrant workers, such as those who work at dairies, feedlots, meatpacking plants or in greenhouses.

"Immigrant labor, for more than just the dairy industry, dare I say for all of agriculture, has become more than just important," Slutsky said. "It helps our industry survive." ❖

Challenges to finding local workers

There are three qualities Brighton-area farmer Dave Petrocco needs every farmworker to be — willing, able and qualified. They must be willing to do farm work, though it’s hard and not always fun. They must be able to do hard labor. They must be qualified to work within the required regulations, such as food safety standards.

Most of the time, the few local candidates he does see for jobs on the farm don’t meet one or more of these requirements. Sometimes, college or high school students want farm work, but are unable to lift heavy quantities or unwilling to work in 95 degree heat. The only solution he sees to that is encouraging more physical activity in schools.

Chris Gaddis, the human resources director for JBS, said it’s important students start learning at younger ages that there are opportunities in agriculture. Too often, they see college as the only path accepted by society, when there are competitive salaries in ag industries such as meatpacking.

He said that though JBS is large, it struggles with recruiting just like smaller companies do, and that’s largely because people don’t realize it’s a viable career.

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