The 2020 population census revealed that many rural areas in the United States have seen a decrease in population, while urban and suburban areas have grown. The decline in the rural population has caused agricultural labor shortages, underscoring the need for immigration reform.
Decreasing Rural Population in Ohio
Although Ohio and Pennsylvania are not the major states for livestock processing, Ohio agribusiness is still in need of workers, and rural counties in Appalachia and the northwest are losing population. Swank Chair in Rural-Urban Policy at Ohio State University, Mark Partridge, said that starting in 1930, farming areas in Ohio have been facing population loss. The migration of residents from the Appalachian regions began in the 1950s, Partridge said.
Cities like Cleveland, Youngstown, and Akron also saw a population decrease, due mainly to the decline in manufacturing units in those areas. “It’s been happening for decades,” Partridge told Farm and Dairy. “People move to economic opportunities.” Columbus and Cincinnati both saw growth, primarily because these cities attract immigrants, he said.
Both Ohio and Pennsylvania saw growth in their Hispanic and Latino populations. Though the census does not account for immigrants, the increase in Hispanic and Latino populations could be because of the increase in immigration. Partridge added that “There is a large immigrant population in rural areas, especially where there’s lots of food processing or agriculture.”
President of Ohio Farmers Union Joe Logan said Ohio’s livestock processing sector isn’t as big as in some states. Still, the fruit and vegetable operations and dairy farms rely on immigrants for farm labor. On the other hand, Pennsylvania grows plenty of specialty crops, vegetables, and fruits, which are labor-intensive during the harvest season. Pennsylvania is also known for its dairy products and mushrooms, which require more year-round labor in terms of growth and harvest. Unfortunately, the immigrant visa programs available are seasonal and cannot meet the required demand for the workforce.
Farm Jobs Not in Demand Among Americans
Even with the declining population in rural areas, farm jobs fail to attract many Americans, creating a need to bring in a foreign workforce through visa programs. That seems to be the only way that farmers can fill the labor gap. The drawbacks in the immigration system, along with the pandemic, have worsened the labor shortage. This has led to farm groups advocating for immigration and visa program reforms. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives in March, would reform the H-2A vias program.
Much Needed Reforms to the H-2A Visa Program
The H-2A visa program is an agricultural program that brings in foreign labor on a seasonal basis. Farm groups are advocating for reforms to make this visa program year-round and to increase the cap on the number of visas in the category. Many farm groups, including the National Farmers Union, United Fresh Produce Association, National Milk Producers Federation, and United Farm Workers, have supported the bill.
“There are not too many issues that all farm groups agree on,” Logan said. Still, “[a]lmost all farm groups agree we should open the [H-2A program] up and make it more friendly … one thing to make it more attractive is the prospect of having a pathway to citizenship, or at least a pathway to being a documented worker,” he added.