U.S. agriculture has a great responsibility on its shoulders – to keep food on the tables of U.S. consumers despite challenges along the way. From uncertain markets to fuel shortages, National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) President-Elect Jen Sorenson says agriculture always finds a way through.
Still, the situations facing production agriculture now in light of the coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic are weighing heavy on the minds of farmers and ranchers. Sorenson says the severe labor shortage keeps her up at night.
“We aren’t able to telecommute. That is not an option for us in the pork industry,” says Sorenson, communications director for Iowa Select Farms. “We have to make sure our industry has the support they need to be able to come in and do their job each day.”
Food production is an essential service
The dynamics are changing fast, she adds. With the closing of the U.S. Consulate in Mexico on Tuesday and the Canadian border shutting down, hog producers are gravely impacted. The pork industry, a farm sector that operates year-round, uses the H-2A visa program for specialized work, but cannot use the program for most labor needs because of its seasonal limitation. Hog farmers are major users of the TN visa program, which taps labor from Mexico.
“The TN visa program allows for professional swine caretakers from Mexico to work in the U.S.,” Sorenson explains. “These specialized caretakers fill important roles on our sow farms, including day one caretakers, breeding leads and ultrasound technicians. Many hog farmers utilize this TN visa program to help fill labor gaps on their farms.”
To apply for a H2A, TN or any visa, people must physically go to their consulate. With that option unavailable, these professionals are not able to get into the U.S. to help fill these gaps.
“NPPC is working to receive a declaration that agriculture is an essential service and these caretakers are essential to ensure our high-quality protein reaches consumers,” Sorenson says.
Obtaining the federal and state support needed to run farms and care for livestock during this time is critical. In the short-term, she says the industry needs TN visa employees to be able to be declared as emergency visas, so they can get into the U.S. Agriculture also needs to be declared an essential service to the country.
“This is key to helping us with other infrastructure challenges like supply, transportation and labor,” Sorenson says. “For example, in Iowa, we are working on essential worker designation at a state level. If livestock caretakers were deemed essential, it would qualify employees for a number of exemptions, including alternative daycare. That would be mirrored on a federal level.”
Agriculture in general, but especially the pork industry, is working to ensure we have a labor supply, operational support and transportation support to avoid the interruption of the pork production cycle.
“We’re also concerned about availability and transport of supplies such as boot products, coveralls, disinfectants, cotton products and consumable supplies on a farm that are essential to animal care and our biosecurity standards,” Sorenson says.
How do we support our workforce?
Every day more reports come in of schools and daycares closing. As community infrastructures close down, what programs and resources will the federal government put into place so workers aren’t prevented from working on farms and in plants?
“In Iowa, we are mandated to less than 10 people at a gathering – everything is shutting down,” Sorenson says. “We all agree this needs to happen to protect our communities. But we have to find solutions that allow people to come into work and give them the support they need.”
Several questions come to mind, she points out. What are we doing to help our workforce in terms of being flexible, in terms of their home life and providing them with a support structure? How can we help get them the resources they need in order to be able to take care of all these animals?
A congressional relief package is working its way through the Senate now. Sorenson says it’s a sizeable relief package that could help provide farm and plant workers with financial support for childcare, in addition to other provisions that would help keep pig farms operating.
“Ag deserves that essential services designation, given our responsibility to produce safe, wholesome and abundant food for U.S. consumers, especially during this time of crisis when there is already concerns about scarcity of products and food. Give us the support that we need to get that done,” Sorenson urges.
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