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Labor concerns in Colorado: Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue leads produce roundtable

More than a dozen Colorado farmers shared concerns and a few laughs with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, Colorado Secretary of Agriculture Don Brown and American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall at a roundtable discussion in Brighton on May 15.

Hosted by Sakata Farms, the event was part of a four-day, multi-state Back to Our Roots ag tour for the secretary. Robert Sakata, owner of Sakata Farms and president of the Colorado Fruit & Vegetables Growers Association, emceed the roundtable.coloradoroundtableColorado Gov. John Hickenlooper; Robert Sakata, Sakata Farms owner and president of the Colorado Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association; and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.

“Fruit and vegetable production is almost a $300 million industry at the farm gate in Colorado with over 60,000 acres in production,” according to the CFVGA’s website. Sakata said the farmers at the session represented approximately 80 percent of Colorado’s fruit and vegetable production.

Sakata told Perdue yesteryear’s head-to-head competition and reluctance to share information with each other has given way to the common goal of securing qualified and legal labor for the state’s “relatively short growing seasons.”

Onion grower Lynn Fagerberg of Fagerberg Farms/Fagerberg Produce in Eaton asked Perdue his take on the state of agriculture in America, with Perdue responding, “There is legitimate anxiety.” The secretary cited stress over trade disruption and government regulations as two major concerns, adding that while the ag landscape is troubled, it’s “nothing that profitability wouldn’t cure.”

Both the lack of labor from the domestic pool and the burdensome procedure of securing guest workers through H-2A were expressed by most of the participants. Reid Fishering of Mountain Quality Marketing said his Western Slope sweet corn deal has been delayed not because of weather but because approval for his early H-2A workers was not approved in time. Perdue acknowledged the procedure as “very problematic.” He added that for “12,000 openings there are 32 applications” for farm work by domestic laborers, and he went on to say the USDA has offered to be a “portal” for the Department of Labor, State Department and Homeland Security, the three agencies from whom approval must come. The portal would come through the USDA’s website, and Kristi Boswell, senior advisor to the secretary of agriculture, said the key is streamlining.

“Farmers have to hire lawyers and agents to hire workers,” she said. “We want to use technology to streamline that process.”

Rocky Ford produce grower-shipper Gail Knapp of Knapp Farms said, “There are problems with H-2A, but without it we’d be out of business. We’d like to see it tweaked.” She said farmers need staggered arrival times for workers, ideally with a small crew arriving early and the rest of the season’s workers arriving for harvest. She also suggested factoring housing and transportation into the program costs, to which the secretary responded, “We’ve been told that would have to be a statutory change.”

Perdue asked what the additional hourly wage would be if worker housing and transportation are included, and the consensus is wages could go up by as much as $6 an hour.

Ray Kniss of Sakata Farms asked about motivation to get U.S. school kids interested in farming, and Perdue said attention is being paid to programs such as 4-H. “We’re seeing a resurgence in interest in Millennials,” although he admitted the interest doesn’t necessarily extend to working in the fields.

Greeley farmer Jason Hungenberg of Hungenberg Farms said his operation has dropped cabbage “a lot due to labor.” Sakata Farms itself dropped its 74-year-old sweet corn program in 2018 because of labor as well.

“The younger generation has lost its work ethic,” Hungenberg said. He said the Weld County Jail is a half-mile from Hungenberg Farms, and he said he had offered jobs to work-release inmates only to have them leave the fields after a few hours. “They said it was the hardest work they’d ever done,” he said, concluding, “H-2A is very important.”

Steering the conversation to trade, Amy Kunugi of Nature Fresh Organics in Center, CO, said, “We really need free trade.” Perdue said the USDA is “working as hard as we can, and we know NAFTA is important to Colorado with 20 cents on every dollar depending on exports. But I have to say I’m not as optimistic as I was two weeks ago.”

The remark referred to a diminished time window, and he said, “I expect it will be renewed. I’m hopeful for an agreement in principle.”

LaSalle grower-shipper Harry Strohauer of Strohauer Farms said the 26-kilometer buffer zone is an issue, and he also said labor is the chief stumbling block for farming today.

Also lending his voice to the labor issue was Dave Petrocco of Petrocco Farms in Brighton. “We grown more than a dozen vegetables on 3,000 acres,” Petrocco said. “We need a lot of labor, and H-2A is the only option that’s kept us afloat.”

Western Slope fruit grower/shipper Bruce Talbott of Talbott’s Mountain Gold wrapped up the conversation saying, “If we don’t get the labor thing right, we will stop growing produce in the United States. We will be an import country.” He said, “We use H-2A. The people are here to work. They want to work. And without them we wouldn’t exist.”

During the exchange, Gov. Hickenlooper said that farming input costs are going up, “but there’s spirit and drive to go into new markets.” And Duvall said as H-2A requests increase, “We’re expecting to see more delays.”

“I don’t know when Congress will take up a comprehensive immigration bill,” Perdue said in his closing remarks. “It’s an emotional and visceral issue, but our president believes agriculture needs a legal workforce.”