Urging Action on Affordable and Secure Food Act

Remarks on the Senate floor.

Senator Michael Bennet
14 min readDec 21, 2022

Affordable and Secure Food Act — As Delivered.

This weekend, families all across America will sit down in their dining rooms for a holiday meal, and they’re going to have to pay more for that meal than they ever have before.

They’re going to have to pay more for bread and more for butter, potatoes, eggs, vegetables — literally almost everything that’s going to be on America’s tables this holiday season is going to be more expensive than ever. And although there are several reasons for that phenomenon, somewhere at the very top is the profound labor shortage that exists in American agriculture.

Today, America’s farmers and ranchers are short more than a hundred thousand workers all across this country to plant seeds, to pick berries, to raise and feed cattle, and do the hard essential work of feeding this country. It’s why growers all across America are banging down the doors of this Capital pleading with us to fix the broken H-2A system for farm workers.

It is obvious to everybody who’s had anything to do with this system that is completely broken. There is no argument that could be made that it’s not.

To start, the H-2A program isn’t even open to year-round jobs. That’s just the beginning of the trouble. That’s every dairy in America who has to milk their cows two or three times a day, including over the holidays. It’s every mushroom grower, livestock producer, horse breeder that needs those year-round visas.

The H-2A program is also hopelessly and embarrassingly outdated. To qualify for a visa, this ancient program requires farmers to put a physical advertisement in a local newspaper if there is a local newspaper — if they can find one.

They can’t advertise online, that’s prohibited. In the year 2022. And you have to reapply for the H-2A visa every single year, which is an incredible burden on farmers and farm workers. It’s the last thing they need.

And finally, the existing program does nothing to protect farmers from dramatic spikes in labor costs from year to year. They can’t plan for the future. They have no idea what kind of uncertainty they’re going to have to deal with when it comes to wages.

I’m thinking of farmers like Bruce Talbot who grows peaches in Palisade, Colorado. The labor shortage hurts Bruce in two ways: one, he doesn’t have enough people to pick everything he grows so he’s forced to leave money on the table every single year. And second, this labor shortage is driving up labor costs, which are now 80 percent of his total costs of his operation. And we’re seeing this all over the country.

You can see it right here, Mr. President. H-2A wages up almost 50 percent in the last 10 years. By the way, this is all wages. Down here, Mr. President, this is what’s happened to wages in farming and ranching in this country. It’s grown so much faster than the rest of the workforce and it’s pushing family farms and ranches to the edge of a cliff. And sadly, a lot of them are going over that cliff or considering moving their operations from the United States to Mexico.

Since 2007, Mr. President, America has lost a hundred and ninety thousand farms — almost all of them small family farms. That’s nearly 10 percent of the farms in this country, Mr. President.

And some industries like dairy have been hit even harder. Between 2003 and 2020, the number of dairy farms in America fell by over half — by 55 percent.

That’s just not bad for dairy farms, it’s bad for the communities that they’re in and that they support, and it’s bad for this country. If we don’t deal with this, this country is on track, believe it or not, Mr. President, to become dependent on foreign food imports.

You can see it here. This is the export line and here’s the projected import line. We’re right at the point where we could be a net importer of food for the first time in my lifetime — maybe the first time in forever, I don’t
know. But I don’t want us to rely on other nations to feed America.

We have the most productive agriculture sector in the world, and yet, because of this labor problem, we are going to accept the idea that we should be a net importer of food for other countries. That’s terrible for our economic security, Mr. President, for our food security, and I would argue for our national security, as well.

Just on the economic point, Colorado’s agriculture generates over 40 billion dollars a year for our state’s economy. Nationwide there are nearly 20 million jobs in food and agriculture-related industries. That’s one in every 10 jobs in this country, and it’s over one trillion dollars of our GDP that’s in agriculture.

And I think people that don’t work in agriculture, that don’t think about agriculture, that don’t live in maybe a rural area — they tend to forget that literally every single sector of our economy depends on agriculture.

You can’t have an economy without food, Mr. President. There’s never been one.

So when we talk about the crisis in American agriculture that I’m here on this floor to address today, we have to understand that the stakes could not be higher.

At the same time we have that issue, there are hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers living in the shadows in this — farm workers — living in the shadows in this country. These men and women are breaking their backs every single day to feed America. Women like Lulu Guerrero, who lives in Weld County, Colorado.

She gets up at three o’clock in the morning, every single morning, to plant crops like watermelons and tomatoes and pumpkins. She’s been doing that for 20 years.

I’ve met people in my state that have been doing it for 30 years, been doing it for 40 years, with no status, with no protections, with no legal recourses when somebody tries to take advantage of them. Many of them with U.S citizens who are their children, people who can’t go back and forth to see their relatives south of the border when somebody dies.

This has been going on for decades, and we have ignored this problem, in part, because the food keeps showing up somehow miraculously in our grocery stores, as if somebody waved a wand to put it there.

These workers have broken their backs to support their families, to support the United States of America, to make sure that we’re fed. The least we can do for our own country is bring them out of the shadows of the law.

The status quo is terrible for workers, it’s terrible for businesses and farms, and it’s terrible for American families who’ve seen their grocery bills go through the roof.

Look at this, Mr. President, I’m not saying all of that is the labor shortage, but a huge amount of that is a labor shortage. In the last year, alone, grocery prices have shot up about 12 percent, faster than at any time in 40 years, as you can see from this slide. And it’s everything. I won’t read all these, Mr. President, but it’s everything.

The price of apples is up seven percent, the price of milk — milk is up 15 percent, and I guarantee you that’s a result of people unable to find people to do that work. And eggs are almost 50 percent.

These aren’t nice-to-haves. None of these are nice to have for the American people, these are essential to a well-balanced meal, to a family being able to feed itself in America. And that’s why Congress has to finally fix this H-2A program, and we have the opportunity to do it.

There’s good news, Mr. President. We have a plan to fix it. The Affordable and Secure Food Act, our proposal, builds on legislation — this is an important point, you know, sometimes people over here blame the House of Representatives for not getting done what needs to get done for this country. In this case, they have passed this bill twice, or a version of this bill twice, in a bipartisan fashion.

There were Republican members of Congress over here last week imploring Republican members of the Senate to please pass this bill which from the Growers’ perspective, by the way, is an improvement over the bill that passed in the house.

The Farm Workers Union and many of the growers in this country have come together to support this legislation, and there’s a good reason why it had bipartisan support in the house. And now, from the perspective of the other side of the aisle, in many ways, it’s actually a better bill. Our bill opens the H-2A program to year-round jobs for the first time ever. And that’s going to mean dairy farmers and mushroom growers can finally access the labor that they need that they can’t access today.

It creates wage certainty for farmers, saving them 23 billion dollars over the next 12 years. I want to say that again — 23 billion dollars over the next 12 years because now people are going to know what the wage increases are going to look like. They’re going to be predictable, they’ve been agreed to, and that results in a savings of 23 billion dollars. That’s two billion dollars more over that period of time than the savings that were achieved in the House bill, for growers.

It requires e-verify for farm workers nationwide. That’s going to help, Mr. President, with the chaos at the border, because people are now going to know they’re not going to be able to come here and work illegally, or in an undocumented fashion in agriculture, so they’ll be less likely to want to come.

And finally, the bill establishes a pathway for undocumented farm workers to apply for a green card after they’ve worked in agriculture for at least a decade, passed a background check, and paid a penalty.

That’s not amnesty — it’s a recognition that anybody who spent a decade breaking their back to feed America should have the opportunity to apply for lawful status. Are we really going to accept, as a definitional matter for this country, that we want fields filled with indentured servants in the United States of America — is that really where we are as a nation? I don’t think so.

That’s not what people in Colorado believe. No matter what party they’re in, they don’t believe that. They think we should fix this problem. They know how hard working the people are that are working in our fields and on our ranches and at our dairies. And that’s why this bill is broadly supported, not just in Colorado but all across the country, by farmers and labor, by immigration advocates, by businesses, by the American people.

A vast majority of the American people know we need to fix this, and this morning, Mr. President — this isn’t meant for anybody to read, I’ll get to that in a moment — but over 240 groups from all across America, including from New Mexico and from Colorado, sent a letter supporting this bill. And I’m not going to read all — I’m tempted to read all 240, and there isn’t anybody here tonight, but let me just give you a sense of the breadth and the depth of the support of this bill.

These signers of this bill include The International Fresh Produce Association, The National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, The National Milk Producers Federation, The National Farmers Union, The National Thoroughbred Racing Association, The American Honey Producers Association, American Mushroom Institute, American Sugar Beet Growers Association, California Apple Commission, The California Association of Wine Grape Growers, Colorado Potato Legislative Association.

Let me just tell you how hard it is for our potato producers in Colorado to deliver that incredible crop, when we finally have created a situation where Mexico has to has to import our potatoes and can’t just keep them out, which is what they’ve been doing for years and years and years. But they can’t find folks to do the work.

They’re already facing, with the with the rise in input costs that farmers and ranchers have to deal with, with the drought that that the Colorado potato growers are dealing with in the San Luis Valley that I know the presiding officer knows so well.

You know, you’d think the least we could do is solve a problem that can be solved that is a major headache for them and for their colleagues all across the country like the Food Producers of Idaho, The Georgia Blueberry Commission, the Idaho Hay and Forage Association, Land O’Lakes, Lone Star Milk Producers, Maine Potato Board, Michigan Nursery and Landscape Association, National Association of State Departments of Agriculture.

You know, as I read this list, you know what one thing these people don’t have in common? They’re not Democrats or Republicans; they’re just trying to deliver agricultural products to the American people — that’s all they’re trying to do. And they live in red States and they live in blue states. They live all over the United States of America.

The National Pecan Federation, The New York Apple Association, The North Carolina Potato Association, Ohio Dairy Producers Association, The Pennsylvania Vegetable Growers Association, Premium Peanut, Mr. President Society Of American Florists, The National Asparagus Council, United Dairy Farmers Of Florida, The Utah Tart Cherry Marketing Board, Mr. President, The Virginia Apple Growers Association, The Washington State Tree Fruit Association, The Western Growers.

And let me say something about the Western Growers. In 2013, I had the privilege of being part of the gang of eight that negotiated the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill that passed this floor with 68 votes. It was led on the Republican side by John McCain and by Jeff Flake, Marco Rubio, and Lindsey Graham. We had four Democrats on our side. And I have to say, in the 14 years I’ve been in this place, that was the best work that we’ve done as a body.

We dealt with this tough issue of immigration, and we dealt with all aspects of it. 11 million people that were undocumented had the chance to earn a tough but fair pathway to citizenship in this country and come out of the shadows. We dealt with all the visa issues that have been driving this you know the country crazy all this year — business visas and agricultural visas.

I negotiated the agriculture provisions of this bill with Senator Rubio and Senator Feinstein and Senator Hatch. And we had the most progressive DREAM Act that had ever been conceived, much less voted on, was part of that bill.

And it also had 40 billion dollars for border security in it. People forget that part. Every single Democrat voted for a bill that had 40 billion dollars of border security. That is a heck of a lot more money than Donald Trump ever spent to build his wall, that medieval device. That 40 billion, which was a bipartisan effort, again, was meant to spend the money on 21st century technology so we could see every inch of the border, so that the border crossings actually could be much better policed than they are today.

I’ll come back to this later in the speech, but you know, I’m not somebody who believes we should have a border that’s not secure. I believe we should have a secure border.

I think the American people expect that we will and I came to this floor, I think it was in May, to say that I thought it was wrong for the Biden Administration to lift Title 42 without a plan to address the border, and we are seeing the effects of that, I think, today. But that shouldn’t be an excuse for making lives more miserable for people working in American agriculture. It shouldn’t be an excuse for driving food prices up for families. It shouldn’t be an excuse for compromising our economic independence, our food security, and our national security.

We have in front of us a negotiated agreement that passed the House of Representatives with a bipartisan vote. We have an agreement that’s been negotiated over here, that’s more generous to producers than the one that passed the House of Representatives, and that has all of the support from all these people all over the country.

I’m not going to read every single one of these names, but you get the idea. These are people who probably, I would guess, many of them probably agree on nothing politically, but they agree on this. They agree on this, and part of that is because the situation they’re confronting is so dire, and part of it is because they’ve helped produce a good piece of legislation that should get it’s chance, and I would ask, Mr. President, that the letter with all these names be entered into the record so I can spare you listening to all of the names.

Thank you, Mr. President. I’ll end with this: there’s a vegetable farmer in Brighton, Colorado, whom I’ve known for many, many years. His name is Robert Sakata, and his dad started Sakata Farms in 1944 after he was released from a Japanese-American internment camp where he was interned during World War II. And for almost 80 years, Sakata Farms has been a critical ingredient of our Colorado economy — a staple of Colorado, to put it in food terms.

But when Robert visited my office in the last couple years, he handed me fliers advertising his equipment for sale and I said, ‘Robert, why are you selling your implements? Why are you doing that?’

He loves what he does. He’s so passionate about what he does. He’s so passionate about the people that work side by side with him to produce incredible fruits and vegetables in Colorado. But he told me that he was selling because he didn’t have enough labor to harvest his vegetable crop, and today, they no longer grow vegetables at Sakata Farms — they only grow row crops.

Is that the future that we want for American agriculture? It’s not what we want in Colorado. I’ve heard stories like that, like Robert Sakata’s story, all over my state, all over this country for the last decade. And we don’t have to accept the loss of the next 10 percent of America’s family farms.

We don’t have to accept hundreds of thousands of people living in the shadows when they work every single day. They’re breaking their backs — and I don’t use that term lightly — working in some of the worst conditions that there are to work in, to feed the American people, to give us economic security, and food security, and to provide for our national security.

And we shouldn’t accept crushing food prices for families just because this Congress can’t reform an antiquated H-2A program. And we can do something about this this week before we go home with this proposal.

Sometimes the politics of an issue like this seem so hard that you’re defeated on it before you even get started, and that’s not been the case with this coalition of people from all over America. They have all they can contend with every single day. As I said, with rising input costs, with the trade issues that we’ve been dealing with. You know, they’ve got every reason in the world not to spend a moment trying to actually pass this piece of legislation.

But it’s so important to them because this labor issue is so critical to the future of American agriculture, and they know it, and they have a sense of urgency about it, and they want us to overcome our fears and our political concerns to come together and do what the House of
Representatives did, which is pass a bipartisan bill.

And I guarantee you, Mr. President, if we do that — if we do that here in this chamber, when people go home what they’re going to hear is ‘thank you.’ ‘Thank you for listening to us. Thank you for respecting our work in American agriculture, and thank you for standing up for our country during a difficult economic moment in world history.’

Thank you, Mr. President