Written by Rep. Rick Crawford, Contributer
Published by The Hill
Michael Whatley began 2020 in the same way as most Americans across the country – completely unaware that a virus emerging from Wuhan, China, would disrupt the lives of everyone across the world. No one anticipated the uncertainty and eventual physical and economic turmoil the COVID-19 pandemic would cause.
Michael serves in the Arkansas National Guard, but found himself furloughed from duty as all employers assessed their economic situations. In April, I launched the Farm and Ranch Mission (FARM) Corps in Arkansas through a partnership among the Arkansas National Guard, the Arkansas Farm Bureau, the Arkansas Department of Agriculture, and other stakeholders, to place furloughed men and women serving in the National Guard and the Military Reserves in agriculture production jobs. Michael began participating in FARM Corps soon after its inception and has quickly settled into working on a farm near his home.
While no person or industry has avoided the consequences of COVID-19, America’s agriculture sector has been especially affected. The H-2A visa program – which allows farmers to bring foreign nationals to the U.S. to work on a seasonal basis – has become nearly useless due to travel restrictions. These complications arrived at the worst possible time for our producers – spring harvest of produce crops, and row crop planting season. Not only has the labor shortage created significant challenges for producers, it has also contributed to food supply chain disruptions. Make no mistake, our food supply is resilient and our farmers are experts at feeding the growing global population. However, COVID-19 is wreaking unprecedented havoc and forcing farmers to reevaluate how to do business.
The agriculture sector in my home state of Arkansas has certainly not been spared from the farm labor crisis brought about by the global pandemic. Seeing Arkansans like our National Guard citizen soldiers forced out of work due to COVID-19, and understanding our farmers’ urgent need for skilled labor, spurred me to develop FARM Corps. Since a strong agriculture is critical to national security, who better to assist in protecting our food supply than those who protect our homeland?
In its short life, there has been nationwide interest in the FARM Corps concept and other states are standing up their own programs, including Mississippi, Illinois, Alabama and Texas. Supporters of the agriculture sector and our service men and women are heavily promoting the opportunity in Arkansas. Those who have found employment through FARM Corps have also found a new purpose – feeding and clothing the world.
While the original idea of FARM Corps was centered around the National Guard and Military Reserves, we should consider how to expand opportunities in the agriculture sector to the many other Americans seeking gainful employment. Lawmakers should work with the Department of Labor and the Department of Agriculture to place interested individuals with local producers. We could also incentivize producers to implement the FARM Corps concept by offering tax incentives to hire domestic workers, instead of relying exclusively on foreign labor. Offering tax incentives for a certain percentage of the prevailing wage should enable farmers to hire individuals at higher wages, while also mitigating part of the financial burden due to COVID-19. While we have hugely supported our country’s small business owners and operators, and the service industry, we must also remember that our agriculture community quietly works to provide us the cheapest, safest, and most abundant – and most secure – food supply in the world.
Though he may not have ordinarily chosen work in the agriculture sector, Michael discovered he enjoys it and he is seeing firsthand how food goes from the farm to the table. And he takes pride in knowing that the rice he hauls may soon be on the table energizing Americans every morning. Who knows – some of that rice may even be in his son’s cereal bowl.
Enabling Americans to find fulfilling employment should always be the mission of lawmakers and the private sector. Stories like Michael’s should no longer be unique. FARM Corps can be the catalyst for something bigger to propel the American worker forward, thus restoring our nation’s economic foundation and that the world.
Rick Crawford represents the 1st District of Arkansas and is a senior member of the House Agriculture Committee.