Right now, we are faced with one of the most important and potentially devastating issues of our time. An issue that, if not addressed carefully, could very well destroy our nation’s ability to produce its own food. At the center of a raging debate in Congress is the fate of our American farms and whether or not we will end up outsourcing most of our food production to countries like China.
There is nothing more critical to the survival of a nation than a secure food supply. It’s not something we should take lightly — and our farms play a key role in producing that supply on a scale large enough to feed our 310 million-plus citizens. Farms are not only at the center of our prized agricultural infrastructure, but they are also at the center of our currently fragile economic ecosystem.
Still, because food is readily stocked on grocery store shelves with millions of Americans enjoying the convenience of restaurants and fast food, we take the role of our 2.2 million farms for granted.
We’re now faced with the prospect of legislation that, if passed in its current form, could literally wipe out the American farm and cause us to rely on other nations for our food supply. While one can appreciate the intentions behind Rep. Lamar Smith’s (R-TX) Legal Workforce Act — which would require employers to use the E-Verify system to ensure that new hires are either American citizens or legal immigrants — the reality is that the legislation, unless modified, will do more harm than good.
Untold hundreds of thousands of American farms would scale back or shut down due to the lack of a workforce to harvest our nation’s crops. The ripple effect across our nation’s economy would be palpable and destructive; whole towns, counties and communities that rely on these farms would face economic devastation from the absence of a core industry. Small businesses transporting farm crops and products as well as the grocers and retailers selling them would sustain a direct hit to their bottom lines. And since each farm job supports at least two or three jobs in the economy, millions more people would find themselves out of work.
While the scenario above might sound like a scene from a summer movie thriller, it’s much closer to reality than any of us would like to think. Legislators in Georgia prematurely passed an overly strict immigration law that triggered an immediate shortage of at least 11,000 migrant farm workers. What transpired is a cautionary tale for Congress: Georgia lost millions and millions worth of agricultural products in 2011 because of the sudden shortage of workers.
Congress should stop and think before going down this path. Eliminating upwards of 75 percent of our national farm workforce would only serves to obliterate most, if not all, of our agricultural infrastructure. Without it, we can’t feed ourselves. Rather than continuing the practice of independent farming that we’ve enjoyed since the founding fathers, we’ll find ourselves begging for basics like milk, eggs, fruits and vegetables from other countries.
Is that a future we want? China can’t even produce honey without its being tainted. A Food Safety News investigation recently found that “a third or more of all the honey consumed in the U.S. is likely to have been smuggled in from China and may be tainted with illegal antibiotics and heavy metals.” So you can only imagine the problems we’ll have once we start importing our staples from China, a place where food safety and regulation are not the priority they are here. Are we ready to be dependent on imported food from countries where E. coli outbreaks are commonplace? Wouldn’t you rather know that your food is safe, domestically grown and harvested right here in the United States? Outsourcing our food supply isn’t a gamble worth taking.
Congress has made some bad decisions in the name of political ideology in the past, but this is one the rest of us simply can’t live with. We cannot afford the loss of security, loss of jobs, loss of safety and loss of control over our own destiny that would come along with outsourcing our food supply. There are solutions — workable solutions that will guarantee our farms a stable, experienced, legal workforce.
American farmers, deeply attached to their communities, would like nothing more than to hire American workers. In fact, they have gone out of their way to recruit local workers in their communities … with poor results. We’ve found that most Americans just don’t want to do this kind of work. While the average farm wages are several dollars an hour higher than the federal minimum wage, Americans are not attracted to or prepared for the seasonal, physically demanding and even migratory nature of the farm worker’s lifestyle. When the South Carolina farm bureau launched a massive statewide recruitment campaign replete with radio ads and a 1-800 number for 60,000 farm jobs, only two people answered the call.
Without a stable and reliable farm workforce, we will have to close our farms. That shouldn’t be an option in a nation that grows its own food. America should not outsource its food security to China. But, that’s exactly what will happen if Chairman Smith’s bill advances without a workable solution that ensures a legal, stable labor force for America’s farms.
Craig J. Regelbrugge is president of Save America’s Food and Economy (SAFE), an organization dedicated to supporting America’s need for a stable and legal farm workforce, greater food security, independence over our food supply, and keeping jobs and economic activity right here in the United States.