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Workforce shortage 'nothing new' for Idaho agriculture

A "broken" immigration system has presented a challenge to agriculture for many years, the CEO of the Idaho Dairymen's Association says.

TWIN FALLS, Idaho — Like many businesses, dairies and other farms around Idaho cannot find enough workers. The Idaho Dairymen's Association said that's despite Idaho dairies offering about $15 an hour as the starting wage for an entry-level job with no experience required.

While other industries are just now seeing a worker shortage, Rick Naerebout with the IDA said this is nothing new for his industry.

“Honestly, we've been in a workforce shortage for a number of years now. We're very dependent on a foreign-born workforce. And our immigration system, as I think everybody recognizes, is broken, and we continually have a lack of workers that are able and willing to perform the jobs that agriculture requires to harvest the food that you and I eat and enjoy every day," Naerebout said.

Labor is one of the biggest costs of production in the dairy industry and agriculture in general. So, Naerebout said, as ag employers keep jacking up their wages to try to attract workers, labor costs are eating up profits and affecting the prices you're paying for your groceries.

"It's not all of the inflationary impact, but it is one of those factors where we're seeing food prices increase, because we have a lack of supply and food supplies are starting to get tighter, just because we don't have the labor to get the work done to get the food the market,” Naerebout said. “And that's going to continue to get worse, even if you see other things normalize in our economy. If we don't solve this labor piece, we're going to continue to see cost increases in the supermarket on food."

The IDA and some members of Idaho's congressional delegation are trying to solve at least a part of the “labor piece.” The Farm Workforce Modernization Act would make changes to the current H-2A temporary worker program and give dairies access to a federal seasonal work visa program for the first time in history. Some undocumented immigrants who have already been working could receive certified agricultural worker status under the legislation.

That bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), has passed twice in the U.S. House, but is stalled in the Senate. The most recent House roll-call vote, from March 2021, shows Idaho’s representatives were split, with Simpson voting yes and Rep. Russ Fulcher voting no.

Naerebout said Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) is helping to negotiate in the Senate to try to get it across the finish line. They're going to make a big push here in the next couple months. We'll let you know how it goes.

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