New Push for Farm Workforce Modernization Act

Web AdminCitrus, Fruits, Vegetables

By Frank Giles

Despite the myriad challenges thrown at Florida growers, when asked what their biggest challenge on the farm is, most reply sourcing labor. This long-time problem was worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Farm Workforce Modernization Act
The Harvest CROO strawberry picking robot has been in development to reduce dependance on hand labor. Photo courtesy of Harvest CROO Robotics

Various efforts to ease farm labor pains have been attempted over the years with limited success. A new push is underway to pass the Farm Workforce Modernization Act (FWMA) in Congress. The bill has passed the House of Representatives and is currently under consideration in the Senate.


The FWMA has several features aimed at providing farm operators with a more reliable workforce. It focuses largely on changes to the current H-2A visa program. It would make the program more widely available. Dairy and livestock producers would be eligible to use the program, and workers would be allowed to stay in the country longer.

It also would provide a pathway to citizenship for H-2A workers. The House version of the bill would allow workers to become permanent residents after eight years of farm work. Initially, applicants who can demonstrate they have worked 1,035 hours or more during a two-year period would become eligible for a “certified agricultural worker status.” This is a temporary status, which is valid for five-year increments. After eight years of documented work, growers then could apply for permanent status.

“The FWMA passed in the House last year with bipartisan support, establishes a program for a path to earned legal status for workers with a history of agriculture employment and makes improvements to the H-2A guest worker visa program,” says Christina Morton, director of communications for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association (FFVA). “It also stabilizes agency-mandated wages and expands access to the H-2A program for producers who need a year-round workforce.”

While the bill has passed in the House of Representatives twice, it has hit snags in the Senate. As of late September, the Senate had not presented a companion bill to the House-passed version. Some senators worry the legislation does not provide enough legal protection to farm workers. A provision in the bill calls into question whether workers would be able to sue farm employers. The bill would expand employee protections under the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (MSPA).

Senate bill supporters Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Mike Crapo (R-ID) have been working with fellow colleagues to hammer out details, but the lawsuit provision is the biggest hang-up. Proponents of the lawsuit provision argue it provides basic protections for the farm workers, including wages and working conditions. The American Farm Bureau has been an opponent of the provision, saying it could lead to frivolous lawsuits that farmers who already are being hit by inflated input prices and tight margins can ill afford.

“That’s an area where our policy is extremely clear. We do not support the inclusion of H-2A under MSPA in this manner,” said Allison Crittenden, Farm Bureau’s director of government affairs in an interview with NPR. “So, we want to make sure that folks can be out farming and not dealing with frivolous lawsuits that could result from this.”

Morton adds, while FFVA supported passage of the House bill, it still needs work. “FFVA continues to voice concerns with the H-2A program and urge policy makers to present meaningful reform that builds off the bill passed by the House last year,” she says.

Farm Workforce Modernization Act


While the FWMA is debated in Washington, growers have increasingly become dependent on the H-2A program. Many say it is the only game in town to secure reliable labor. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, H-2A visa workers make up about 11% of the overall agricultural workforce. The agency also notes visa holders have more than tripled since 2012.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Florida has become the biggest user of the H-2A program, accounting for 14% of certified visa holders. Georgia comes in second, using 10%
of the workers.

“The H-2A program is incredibly important to Florida agriculture. In fact, Florida is the largest user of the H-2A program in the country with approximately 44,700 H-2A visas approved in 2021,” Morton says. “Without this workforce, American food security is at risk. The pandemic really reminded us how important it is as a country to be able to supply our own food.”

Justin Sorrells and his family own and operate Sorrells Citrus, a custom harvest service in Florida and have been using the H-2A program for two decades. While many users complain about the paperwork and red tape surrounding the program, Sorrells says they have used the program for so long that they have the process down and can utilize H-2A effectively. The business brings in about 450 H-2A workers per year to harvest citrus and blueberries.

“We are so entrenched in the program that we don’t really have issues getting the workers here in a timely manner,” Sorrells says. “In the middle of the pandemic, we had a few issues getting workers in dealing with testing and vaccinations, but that is really no longer an issue.”

Sorrells adds many of the workers that come each year have been working with the family business for years, which makes the process easier. “We have some H-2A workers that have been coming back year after year from the very beginning. If you treat the workers well, they come back and really become part of the business. We probably have a 75% retention rate with workers.”

But Sorrells says he is aware of growers who have had challenges using the program. He has helped educate some growers on how to use the program more effectively, but acknowledges it is a problem for many.

To the argument that growers should hire local labor to do farm work, Sorrells has a simple response. “There just are not any local people willing do the job. Under the program, we must advertise the jobs to the local community. Over many years, we’ve had very few local people apply. And we do hire those folks that do apply, and typically they last two weeks at the most.” 


There is a wide array of companies developing new technologies that will help growers deal with the lack of human labor on farms. Machines and robots are being built to automate farm operations from weed control to harvest.

Central Florida-based Harvest CROO Robotics has been developing a robot to autonomously harvest strawberries. The machine has gone through numerous iterations as the technology has been fined-tuned over time. To illustrate the need, more than 70% of the U.S. strawberry-growing industry has invested in the machine. The robot is now being utilized for limited commercial harvest and is scalable, allowing new technology applications to be added in the future.