The U.S. economy stands to lose $5 billion to $9 billion in sales to its foreign competitors over the next two years if Congress does not take steps to help solve the nation’s ongoing agricultural labor shortage.

That was the warning California Sen. Diane Feinstein gave as she re-introduced the Agricultural Job Opportunities and Benefits and Security Act on Thursday. Congressmen Adam Putnam of Florida and Howard Berman of California offered companion legislation in the House.

“Today across the United States, there are not enough agricultural workers to pick, prune, pack or harvest our country’s crops,” Feinstein said, noting that the shortage has led to thousands of farmers having to watch their crops rot or fallow their farmland in recent years.

She said the lack of workers has created a ripple effect that is being felt throughout the economy, including in farm equipment manufacturing, packaging, processing, transportation, marketing, lending and insurance. For every job lost on farms and ranches, the country loses about three other jobs, she noted.

The re-introduction of the bill, which is designed to reform the H-2A seasonal worker program and offer a pathway to citizenship for immigrants already employed on U.S. farms, was hailed by farm groups.

“We commend Sen. Feinstein and Congressmen Berman and Putnam for showing tremendous political courage,” said Tom Nassif, president and CEO of Western Growers, a trade association whose members pack and ship nearly half of the nation’s fresh fruits, nuts and vegetables.

Feinstein cited several situations where growers have had to close down or drastically scale back their operations due to labor shortages. In one case, the owner of a lettuce processing plant in California re-located the facility in Mexico, hiring 500 new employees in the latter.

The AgJOBS bill is the result of years of negotiations between farm workers, growers and members of Congress. The legislation dates back to the 1990s when agricultural employers and their supporters attempted to create a new agricultural guest worker program. The efforts ran into opposition from farm worker organizations, which said the bill did not offer enough protection for workers.

In a letter of support for the bill’s reintroduction, United Fresh President Tom Stenzel said, “Immigration reform is essential to stem this crisis. AgJOBS is a widely-supported, comprehensive package of reforms intended to meet that objective. It includes reasonable measures to ensure a predictable, documented workforce, along with enhanced security and enforcement provisions.”

Currently, less than 2 percent of the U.S. workforce is engaged in farm work, but more than 550,000 U.S. farmers hire workers to fill more than 3 million agricultural jobs each year. Because many of these agricultural jobs are seasonal, the 3 million jobs are filled by 2.5 million workers.

According to the National Agricultural Workers Survey, the percentage of agricultural workers who reported that they were unauthorized has increased dramatically in the last two decades. In the most recently published NAWS survey from fiscal 2001-02, 53 percent of all seasonal agricultural workers admitted they were not authorized to work in the U.S. However, many experts suggest that the number may actually be closer to 75 percent.

Supporters of the legislation note that employers with the best of intentions can get caught up in immigration enforcement actions. The latest filing of the AgJOBS bill comes only one year after the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service raid on the AgriProcessors meat packing facility in Postville, Iowa.

The raid, which resulted in the arrests of 300 undocumented workers, put the kosher meat packing company in bankruptcy and left Postville bordering on being a ghost town.

The shortage of legal, documented workers is having an impact in a wide-ranging number of agricultural endeavors, according to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., one of 16 co-sponsors of the Senate bill.

“In Vermont, as in many states across the country, farmers are feeling the effects of a scarce labor pool,” he said. “This problem is particularly acute for the dairy industry, where the employment needs are year-round and require a significant investment from the farmer in terms of training and development.”

Leahy said the AgJOBS bill will give dairy farmers needing workers the opportunity to lawfully hire foreign workers who can remain with their employers for a meaningful period of time.”

“California’s farmers and growers are still waiting for a solution to the persistent labor shortages that each year cost our state’s agricultural economy billions of dollars,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., another co-sponsor of the bill.

“The central issue here is not immigration — it is about protecting and preserving the American economy,” said Feinstein. “We in Congress should be doing everything possible to prevent U.S. farms from shutting down.”

e-mail: flaws@farmpress.com