“We’re being put out of business”

“We fight to stay alive.” These are the words of Bret Erickson, Senior Vice President of Business Affairs at Edinburgh, Texas-based Little Bear Produce at a press conference yesterday: “Cutting Food Prices, Keep Shelves Available: Smart Solutions to Farm Labor Shortages in Texas.”

In 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives, with bipartisan support, passed the Farm Worker Modernization Act. Now in the Senate, Senators Mike Crapo (R-ID) and Mike Bennett (D-CO) are negotiating to improve House decisions. Yesterday’s contingency marked the passage of new Senate legislation as critical to addressing the labor shortage facing Texas’ agricultural sector and sustaining the state’s economy as a whole.

Erickson passionately asked for help in filling the shortage of agricultural workers in the country. As he notes, a few years ago, Little Bear was forced to start using the H-2A temporary farm worker program to help replenish a dwindling workforce. “It was not done by choice. It was done out of necessity,” he said. “They have proven to be one of the most reliable sources of labor we can get. However, this comes at a huge cost—almost 40 percent more expensive than local labor. This is a fact for fruit and vegetable growers across America. Most of them now use the H-2A, which is incredibly expensive and the program is very cumbersome.”

Left: Bret Erickson; right: Dante Galeazzi

The consequences of the pandemic
As he notes, the problem of labor shortage has been around for decades, although the pandemic has exacerbated the problem. “We’re having to cut back our acreage in Texas because we can’t recruit enough people,” Erickson said. “And moving completely to the H-2A program is currently financially unsustainable. This is in large part due to Congress’ unwillingness to help provide agricultural labor, which in turn will benefit American consumers through lower prices.”

At the same time, US manufacturing has changed. “Nearly 50 percent of all fruits and vegetables consumed here are now imported. The security of our country’s product supply has quietly shifted in favor of other countries,” Erickson said. “There is a direct link to this shift and the fact that Congress has done nothing to reform agricultural labor in a generation.”

Dante Galeazzi, president and CEO of the Texas International Growers Association, said he represented 6,000 family farms in Texas. He asked the same from elected officials, and also expressed concern about where the products come from. “The USDA predicts that the US will be a net importer of agricultural commodities next year, which means we will rely more heavily on imports from other countries to keep us fed,” he said. “We don’t want to create trade imbalances and we don’t want to completely rely on other countries to grow our food.”

Compensation for rising food prices
He also raised an issue that manufacturers and shippers across the country are all too familiar with: rising costs. “Our manufacturing companies are citing a 22-23 percent overhead increase just for work. Food prices for fruits and vegetables rose by only 10-11 percent,” he said. “If nothing else changes from today, we still have another 12-13 percent increase to cover inflation. The cost of labor will rise even more as we continue to compete, which means that food prices will rise even higher as we face inflation that will last three to five years.”

The group as a whole has tied the dots between labor problems, inflation and today’s rising food prices. “Food prices are rising in the face of a projected multi-year inflationary period. Our officials can help or at least limit some of these increases by addressing a longstanding problem in this country,” Galezzi said.

Erickson didn’t mince words when it came to his conclusions about what was needed. “Our officials in the District of Columbia have been dismissing the issue of farm labor for far too long. American consumers are paying, as are farmers,” he said. “We’re being taken out of business.”

The conference was hosted at the Little Bear premises by the American Business Immigration Coalition (ABIC Action), and attendees included Dante Galeazzi, President and CEO of the Texas International Manufacturers Association; Jerry Garcia, Vice President, Special Projects and Government Relations, McAllen Chamber of Commerce; Mayor Javier Villalobos, City of McAllen; Mayor Ramiro Garza, City of Edinburgh; Juan Carlos Cerda, Texas state director and deputy campaign manager for ABIC-Action.

For more information:
Bret Erickson
little bear cub
Tel: +1 (956) 380-0353
[email protected]
www.littlebearproduce.com

Hector Garza
Texas International Manufacturers Association
Tel: +1 (956) 581-8632
[email protected]
https://texipa.org/

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