Labor issues in agriculture, both on the farm and in related business, such as processing plants, has become an urgent issue, according to Iowa Cattlemen’s Association members.

At the 2017 Iowa Cattle Industry Leadership Summit, past ICA presidents and others voiced their concerns.

“If we exported or deported all of the illegal immigrants in Sioux County, Iowa, our economy would collapse, plain and simple, there’s no question about it,” said Kent Pruismann, past ICA president and Sioux County feedlot operator. 

Ed Greiman, another past president of the association and current manager of the Lime Springs packing plant, agreed. “We’ve got to figure out a way to make it simple, with a path they know they can follow to become legal citizens,” he said. 

The policy committee created an immigration task force to study the issue, and also passed policy supporting legal immigration and a pathway to citizenship.

The task force, a group appointed by ICA President David Trowbridge, met on March 1 in Sioux Center. The group discussed the challenges of a labor shortage across sectors of the cattle industry and acknowledged the importance of immigrant labor.

After discussing the current U.S. immigration system, proposed legislation, and facts about the role of immigrants in the agricultural workforce, the task force developed questions to be answered and action items to move forward on.


Are labor shortages affecting Iowa’s 

farmers?

Iowa’s unemployment rate is currently 3%, among the lowest in the nation. In Sioux County, Iowa’s most livestock-dense county, unemployment is at 1.7%. This means that competition for employees is fierce, in agriculture and other industries, and finding able-bodied employees is a challenge.

ICA Immigration Task Force members, several of whom are from northwest Iowa, indicated that producers they’ve talked to are having difficulty meeting the labor demands of their day to day operations. Supporting businesses, especially packing plants, are also experiencing labor shortages.


How do labor shortages at packing plants affect producers?

Reports from packers in the midwest indicate that labor shortages have had a direct impact on the amount of cattle slaughtered over the past couple of years.

Following the drought of 2012, slaughter numbers decreased, and the number of shifts and employees at packing plants followed suit. As beef herd expansion has gained steam since then, the packing industry has, at times, struggled to keep up, resulting in a lot of market-ready fed cattle with nowhere to go.

History has taught Iowa’s cattle industry that packing plant labor can have an impact on the bottom line. Labor availability was one of several factors in the rapid decline of the market in October 2015. According to Lee Schulz, Assistant Professor in Iowa State University’s Department of Economics, “The industry was in a situation where supply was right up against packing capacity. That left both cattle supply and demand the same and fixed in terms of quantity — the packers weren’t be able to take any more cattle (in part due to limited operational capacity from limited labor) and producers weren’t able to ship any fewer. The result of this is what economists call an ‘indeterminate price’ — it could be anything from zero up to, perhaps, last year’s price level. In late 2015 in Iowa, it was a $40/cwt lower price than the previous year.” A steady source of workers is necessary to keep product moving through the supply chain and keep that situation from happening again.


What’s next?

Four members of the task force visited Washington, D.C. recently to share their concerns about labor shortages, and other issues affecting cattle producers, with Iowa’s congressional delegation. In the meantime, ICA staff and leaders are reviewing the current immigration system as well as proposed bills that would help provide agriculture with a stable, legal workforce.

While federal lawmakers have seen several proposals for immigration reform offered, so far Congress has not been successful in addressing some of the challenges with the current system. One proposal that specifically addresses the need of ag labor and is still viable in Congress is the Ag Guestworker Bill which is now part of the “Securing America’s Future Act”. Proposed by Congressman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, this proposal would replace the existing H-2A program with an H-2C. Among other provisions, this bill would provide temporary legal, skilled guest workers who would go home after a period of time but could re-certify to come back to the U.S. Proponents say the program would provide enough workers (450,000) to do the needed jobs with a portion of those allocated for packing house workers, useful as cattle numbers increase.

Other federal priorities for ICA include changes to CRP, funding for the FMD vaccine bank, a permanent solution to the Electronic Logging Device and Hours of Service issue for livestock haulers, increasing international trade and protecting the industry from “fake meat” and misleading labels.