By Chris Butts
“I know of no pursuit in which more zeal and important service can be rendered to any country than by improving its agriculture.” — George Washington, July 1794
Our nation’s founding fathers understood the importance of agriculture to our fledgling republic. The ability to feed ourselves is critical to national security and prevents us from becoming reliant upon other nations for food. From the public’s viewpoint, “supporting our farmers” has become a popular theme across social media, and there is never a shortage of elected officials touting the benefits of American agriculture and the impact farming makes on rural communities.
Unfortunately, the reality facing fruit and vegetable producers can differ from the idyllic picture that seems to romanticize farming to the public. Growers today operate in a complex world where technology drives yields, input costs remain at record levels, and consumers demand fresh produce 365 days a year. The Rockwellesque vision of a farmer seeing the sunset over his field is nice, but a modern farmer is more likely to be looking over spreadsheets and apps than sunsets.
The farmer’s environment has changed. American growers today find themselves facing a web of regulations that often put them at a decided disadvantage to foreign competitors. Georgia fruit and vegetable growers are world-class farmers producing over $1 billion worth of fresh produce every year. Unfortunately, they are facing an unlevel playing field that threatens the very future of their operations.
In Georgia, growers find themselves at a crossroads of policies that make growing and supplying fresh produce a risky proposition with razor-thin margins and a lack of any meaningful safety net. Surging imports continue to drive down prices domestically, often at or below the cost of production.
American farmers proved their resiliency during the COVID pandemic when produce shelves at grocery stores remained fully stocked. As import levels continue to rise, will we as a nation be able to feed ourselves the next time we see a worldwide supply-chain interruption? Not without American growers.
Adding to growers’ concerns is the increasingly complex challenge to find a documented and dependable workforce willing to do the hard work it takes to bring produce to market. Proposed regulations from the U.S. Department of Labor, Department of Homeland Security and Occupational Safety and Health Administration will only add to the red tape, expense and complexity of the H-2A program. Double-digit increases in wages cost Georgia growers an estimated $120 million in additional wages in 2023 alone.
Time To Act
As an industry, we must continue to strive to educate our growers on the complex rules of H-2A compliance while firmly denouncing those who abuse the program. However, overreaching regulations like the new proposed rules will cost growers more time and money and continue to make H-2A a less sustainable program going forward.
It’s time that our policies and support of American growers align with the changing realities facing farmers in today’s information- and technology-driven age. At a time when buying locally and knowing where your food comes from matters to discerning shoppers, we have an opportunity to further connect our growers and their stories with consumers.
Growers go to great lengths to tell their story and connect with the buying public. Producing the food that nourishes our citizens is a noble and necessary pursuit. We must continue to tell that story, so that all Americans have a better understanding of where our food comes from.
We must also continue to inform our elected officials of both the challenges and opportunities to advance agriculture here at home, and we must work harder to ensure our elected officials craft policies and regulations that strengthen our farming operations for future generations. Our farmers and our American consumers are counting on it.
Chris Butts is the executive director of the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association.