This is the first year Brighton’s Sakata Farms isn’t growing cabbage, one of its former principal crops. Robert Sakata, farm owner, said it wasn’t worth planting this year, because he wouldn’t have enough employees to harvest it.
“We got tired of leaving crops in the field,” he said.
Sakata, along with several other farmers, said labor was the No. 1 concern for his industry’s future Aug. 24 at a roundtable at Sakata Farms, which brought together vegetable farmers, ag industry professionals and elected officials or delegates from their offices.
Sakata organized the roundtable alongside Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., after Coffman visited Sakata Farms several years in a row and realized the extreme need for more interaction between farmers and politicians. This is the first year for the event, which was followed by farm tours.
Labor was the largest concern for the farmers in attendance, followed by water rights and governmental overregulation.
WORKING FOR LABOR
Dave Petrocco, a third generation farmer, said his labor force is by far the top expense on his 3,000 acres of vegetables stretching from Brighton to north of Greeley. Finding workers qualified and willing to do temporary agricultural work is difficult, Petrocco said, but the hardest part is juggling restrictive immigration policies and work programs like the H-2A temporary worker program.
Under H-2A, a farmer can bring migrant workers to his operation legally, but is required to provide them with housing, transportation, expenses coming in and out of the country and more, as well as pay wages. The farmer is also required to guarantee a certain number of hours per week for the set time of employment, and if a farmer doesn’t provide the ability to work for at least 75 percent of those hours, they must pay the full amount.
For farmers like Petrocco, who lost about a third of his crops to hail this year, providing the same amount of work with far fewer products is cumbersome. For example, two hailstorms knocked out about half his green bean crop within a span of three weeks. Petrocco used to have green bean production seven days a week in his facility, which meant he needed staff to work production lines washing, sorting, packaging and cooling the beans. Now, he only has enough beans coming out of the field to keep the lines moving three or four days a week, but he is still responsible for the same number of workdays for his employees.
Don Brown, the Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture, said he has used the H-2A worker program on his farm and ranch in Yuma, Colo., and described it with one word — “broken.”
Petrocco said the complicated migrant worker system doesn’t only make it harder for farmers to afford employees, but it also drastically reduced the number of the seasonal workers. It’s more competitive than ever just to staff the farm.
Sakata said when he was young, his father, Bob, would hire his high school friends to work in the fields. It’s rare now to see that type of workforce — but not unheard of. At the roundtable, Tim Ferrell of Berry Patch Farms in Brighton, Colo., said he and his wife are circumventing H-2A woes by staffing the fields with millennials.
WHAT ABOUT WATER?
Jason Condon of Isabelle Farm, in Lafayette, Colo., said one of the biggest worries on his farm is water. Most of the ditches in Boulder County are majority owned by municipalities, but he said farmers have been lucky, because the cities have leased them the water. But that might not always be the case.
“Everything we grow is based on water,” Condon said. “Produce and water are the same thing.”
Sakata used the example of sweet corn — a crop he can’t grow using certain water saving methods, like deficit irrigation. If he grows a sweet corn cob that’s only four inches long because it didn’t get enough water at the right times during the season it won’t sell in a grocery store.
“A cow doesn’t know the difference between a 10 inch and four-inch ear of corn, but the consumer does,” he said.
Condon said he knows water is an important conversation everywhere and for everyone in Colorado, but he wants to make sure that politicians are hearing about ag’s needs directly from farmers.
“You hear a lot of talk on ag, but little comes from people making a living in ag,” he said. “It’s really critical that we are listening to the people growing the corn.”
‘MORE RULES, MORE COSTS FOR FARMERS’
Jim Ehrlich, executive director of the Colorado Potato Administrative Committee, dove into the agriculture industry nearly half a century ago. During that time his job description has changed, but the state of overregulation hasn’t, he said. It only continues to get worse.
“All I’ve seen in the last 40 years is more rules, more costs for farmers,” Ehrlich said. “For you to be sustainable, you have to make a profit.”
That poses a problem, because these costs aren’t falling in line with farm income. For example, he said farmers are paying for three or four food safety audits, no matter the cost of production or potential return, just to be able to sell their wares in a retail environment. Federal food safety rules dictate even unpredictable conditions, like wildlife in fields. It gets nearly impossible to follow every rule and still stay in operation, he said, and the rules are largely preaching to the choir. Farmers want to produce safe food because safe food is key to their livelihood.
“When you work on a farm, you get the job done. You don’t cut corners,” he said.
Commissioner Brown brought up the Environmental Protection Agency’s 100-foot rule, what he calls another example of overreach and unnecessary regulation.
The 100-foot rule means there must be a 100 foot radius between where pesticides are being sprayed and where any human is located. In some cases, like the case of Brown’s elderly mother, that means people will have to change rooms in their home or even leave the house during spraying. At the Colorado Farm Show earlier this year, Brown said this rule would also mean fields that back up to roads couldn’t be sprayed to the edges.
FINDING THE FIX
Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., said he knows Colorado’s farmers are in trouble. He recalls when Robert Sakata, owner of Brighton’s Sakata Farms, told him if any group in America is endangered, it’s the American farmer.
After hearing from the farmers, Reps. Buck and Coffman asked several questions and proposed a few ideas, like trying to move programs that impact agriculture under the control of the U.S. Department of Agriculture instead of other regulatory agencies.
Coffman also proposed trying to get a waiver system in place for temporary ag work for those on government assistance.
Near the end of the meeting, Larry Duell of Fort Collins, Colo.’s Gowan Seed Company urged both Buck and Coffman, as well as the delegates of other political officials, to take the concerns of farmers to heart and to Capitol Hill.
“It doesn’t matter what side of the aisle you’re on — just get together and do it for these guys,” Duell said. “It’s becoming a matter of survival.”