Jul 23, 2021 - Business

Iowa's largest pork producer calls for immigration reform

Illustration of a welcome mat in the shape of Iowa.

Illustration: Trent Joaquin/Axios

Iowa's largest pork producer warned the U.S. Senate this week of the need for immigration reform as the state grapples with a farmworker shortage that some say could cripple the industry.

Why it matters: If these problems aren't addressed, they could threaten the future growth of the state and increase food costs around the world.

Driving the news: Jen Sorenson, a spokesperson for Iowa Select Farms, testified before a Senate committee Wednesday that severe labor shortages could lead to the closure of farms and packing plants.

  • An increasing need for workers in the face of rural population declines cannot be overcome without "foreign-born labor," Sorenson testified.
  • Current visa programs designed for seasonal agriculture fail to meet the year-round needs of livestock farmers, she said.

Between the lines: House Democrats in March passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act —which would create a pathway to citizenship for roughly 1 million agricultural workers.

  • U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is urging the Senate to pass the bill.
  • But some Senate Republicans, including Sen. Chuck Grassley, are raising concerns about the legislation, saying the concept grants amnesty to agricultural workers who entered the country illegally.

By the numbers: Food and agriculture industries contribute about $2.7 trillion to the U.S. gross domestic product, about one-fifth of the country’s economic activity, Vilsack testified during the Senate hearing.

  • There are about 2.4 million farmworkers, of which about 48% are living in the country without legal permission, according to the USDA.
  • More than 213,000 ag workers entered the U.S. last year on seasonal and temporary work visas, according to the U.S. State Department.

Of note: Legal immigration status is difficult to track, as many of those surveyed might not feel comfortable disclosing such information.

The bottom line: Rural America needs immigrants.

  • That's the conclusion of a New York Times guest essay written by Iowa journalist Robert Leonard and farmer Matt Russell and it was published the same day as this week's senate hearings.
  • It a compelling read that focuses on Marion County and calls for the U.S.' immigration process to be made easier and faster.

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