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Foreign-born workers are essential for US pork industry

New research from Iowa State University (ISU) shows that US pork sector needs access to foreign-born workers to remain sustainable.

10 August 2021, at 8:00am

Despite competitive wages and an expanding workforce, the US pork industry continues to struggle with a labor shortage that will require access to more foreign-born workers to remain sustainable, according to a study by Iowa State University economists that was recently updated to reflect the current state of the labor market. The study underscores the urgent need for agriculture labor reform, a top priority for the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC).

The economists describe the current state of the agriculture labor market as follows:

“Conditions in the agricultural labor market have been challenging for decades. The agricultural industry in the US has progressed from a fairly large labor-intensive sector where family members supplied the majority of the farm labor, to one of much larger, more capital-intensive farms requiring a larger workforce comprised of skilled farm operators supplemented by a pool of unskilled labor, which is often seasonal and migrant. As a result of this evolution in both the number and the skill level required of employees in agriculture, many farmers have struggled with labor hiring and retention challenges.”

According to the study, from 2001-2020, employment in the US pork industry grew by an annual rate of 1.5%, four times faster than employment growth in all US industries. Despite expanded wages and jobs, the US pork industry is facing a significant domestic labor shortage due to a dwindling and aging rural labor population where hog farms and harvest facilities are located, the study noted. From 2014-2019, the rural labor force shrank in five of the eight top pork-producing states, it found.

Foreign-born workers have been critical to the US pork industry’s economic growth, the study found. “In many rural labor markets, immigrant workers have lessened the negative effect of net out-migration, helping to keep rural communities in these markets economically viable.” However, pork producers continue to struggle with ongoing labor shortages, and native-born workers and permanent residents cannot offset the need for foreign-born employees, the study concluded.

A copy of the study can be read here.

Current visa programs designed for seasonal agriculture—such as the H-2A visa—fail to meet the workforce needs of US pork producers and other year-round livestock farmers. To address the labor shortage, NPPC is advocating for year-round access to the H-2A visa program without a cap.

“The US pork industry has a critical labor shortage that needs to be urgently addressed,” said NPPC President Jen Sorenson, who testified last month before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the need for labor reform. “Pork production is year-round, and visa reform should reflect that reality.”

Last month, NPPC launched its “Year-Round Pork Needs Year-Round Workers” campaign to profile the stories of four foreign-born workers who make vital contributions to the US pork industry and their communities.