Jun 1, 2021CFVGA: Colorado farm labor law to further stress ag labor market
According to U.S. agricultural Census data, over the last decade net farm income has declined by 13 percent, while farm production expenses have increased 26%. A new labor law, Agricultural Workers’ Rights, has passed the Colorado Senate and will be heard in the House State, Civic, Military & Veterans Affairs Committee June 3, further tightening the economic strings on Colorado farmers and ranchers.
Colorado’s unique produce growing environment with its short season and harsh weather, is challenging for even the best growers to be profitable and stay in business,” Bruce Talbott, co-owner/operator of Talbott’s Mountain Gold, president of the Colorado Fruit and Vegetable Growers (CFVGA), said in a news release. “SB21-087 in its original form would have made it impossible for most produce growers to stay afloat. We are thankful for the amendments passed in the Senate and hope the House will make further amendments to make this bill workable for growers.”
The original bill would have required overtime pay for farm employees working over 40 hours per week or 12 hours per day. The overtime requirement has been referred to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment (CDLE), which will go through a rule-making process that includes input from all stakeholders.
“Agriculture just isn’t a 9-5 job,” said David Asbury, Rocky Mountain Pumpkin Ranch, Longmont. “We have a very short window to plant, cultivate and harvest a crop. Paying overtime for employees working over 40 hours per week during these peak seasons would be the end of many of us. We hope CDLE will be able to hear our concerns and make rules that work for both employee and employer.”
Growers say that Colorado’s short, intense produce season is a draw to migrant and H2-A workers, because it allows them to maximize their incomes in a short amount of time.
“Our H-2A team comes from Ukraine and Moldova,” said Amber Strohauer, Strohauer Farms, La Salle, “and our short growing season is appealing because they are able to maximize their income in a short period where they are not sacrificing too much time away from family and loved ones. Our H2A team comes here to work. They are prepared for the long hours and physical demands of agriculture. Most of our team grew up in agriculture in their home country. We have the same people returning to work each year, and they tell us the money they earn has helped them buy homes, start businesses and educate their children.”
CFVGA and other ag organizations were finally heard when bill proponents agreed to refer details for overtime as well as specifics for types of shade, break specifics and the amount of water provided to workers, to a rulemaking process in the Senate bill.
“Every sector of the ag economy and every type of production is different,” said Talbott. “It is highly inefficient and wrought with potential unintended consequences to have lawmakers with little ag experience legislate such details.”
In the House version of the bill, CFVGA is calling on representatives to amend it to send specifics around hand-weeding to the CDLE rulemaking process. The Senate bill allows for hand-weeding only on existing organic farms and does NOT afford this exemption to new organic farms. Hand-weeding is the only option on organic operations, rendering Colorado closed to farmers wishing to transition to organic production. In addition, many non-organic operations, such as but not limited to cantaloupe and watermelon, use plastic or other mulching systems to reduce chemical use. The mulch also conserves water and keeps produce from contacting water, which is important for food safety.
“Hand-weeding is the only way to remove the weeds in these conventional operations like ours,” said Glenn Hirakata, whose family raises Rocky Ford melons and watermelon. “Do we really want a law that will eliminate production of these crops in the most environmentally sound manner? With so many different crops and types of farming, legislating specific tools and methods will limit current and future technology.”
Strohauer said her family has been growing potatoes in Weld County since 1910. Twenty years ago, this Northern Colorado area where her family farms had 64 potato growers, but today Strohauer Farms is the only one left in Weld County. Factors like labor costs, which have risen 40 percent in the last decade have caused farmers to either sell to develop or transition to crops that require minimal labor. They have moved almost half of their operation out of the state already to survive.
“I believe we should be doing everything we can to pass the farming legacy on to the next generation,” said Strohauer. “Ninety-six percent of Colorado farms are family-owned, and farms are so important to our local communities. We truly provide food security, access and affordability through contributions to our local food banks and reducing transportation costs with our local retailers. We also provide fresh food, thereby reducing food waste.”
More data on ag labor and the impact of this legislation on the produce growing sector is available here.
A video by a Colorado agriculture worker from Ukraine can be viewed here.
The CFVGA is comprised of more than 250 members, including growers of all sizes and types of production throughout the state, as well as representatives of allied industries. The Colorado fruit and vegetable growing sector contributes nearly $485 million to Colorado at the farm gate and is multiplied as it goes through the distribution chain. Over 90,000 Colorado acres are in fruit and vegetable production.