Rural America’s population losses spotlight shortages of farm, ranch labor

Even before the latest Census figures came out, farm and ranching groups have been calling for immigration reform to help them face an already severe shortage of workers.

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Cattle occupy a feedlot in Columbus, Neb. Rural America continued to lose population in the latest numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Cattle occupy a feedlot in Columbus, Neb. Rural America continued to lose population in the latest numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Nati Harnik / AP

OMAHA, Neb. — Rural America’s population loss, documented in the latest census figures, spotlights an already severe worker shortage in the nation’s farming and ranching regions — and it’s bringing calls from those industries for immigration reform to help ease the problem.

The new census data showed population gains in many rural areas were driven by increases in the numbers of Hispanic residents, many who come as immigrants to work on farms or in meatpacking plants or to start their own businesses.

“We’ve struggled on this issue for a long time to try to come up with a more reasonable, common-sense approach,” said John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, which is part of a group lobbying Congress for new immigration laws. Vilifying immigrants “just makes it harder to get there.”

The population trend is clear in Nebraska, where only 24 of the state’s 93 counties gained residents. Of those 24, just eight reported an increase in the white population, suggesting that most of the growth was driven by minorities, said David Drozd, a research coordinator for the University of Nebraska Omaha’s Center for Public Affairs Research.

Workers process chickens at the Lincoln Premium Poultry plant, Costco Wholesale’s dedicated poultry supplier, in Fremont, Neb.

Workers process chickens at the Lincoln Premium Poultry plant, Costco Wholesale’s dedicated poultry supplier, in Fremont, Neb.

Nati Harnik / AP

Drozd analyzed the census data and found that Nebraska counties with the greatest racial diversity are a “who’s-who of where the meatpacking plants are,” even though many plants are in rural areas that are often perceived as mostly white.

“In the rural areas, if you didn’t have the Latino growth, employers would be struggling even more just to fill those positions,” Drozd said.

In New Mexico, there were population declines across 20 rural counties that stretch from the Great Plains at Oklahoma to the U.S. border with Mexico. Desperate for laborers for its annual chile harvest, state officials are pledging up to $5 million in federal pandemic relief to subsidize wages for pickers and workers at chile-processing plants — boosting available wages to as high as $19.50 an hour.

Some Republican state legislators blamed the labor scarcity on supplemental unemployment benefits, which they say create a disincentive to work because they pay more than some low-wage jobs. Democrats see a persistent labor crisis.

The New Mexico Chile Association trade group says the industry is short about 1,350 seasonal laborers of the 3,000 workers needed.

The problem is just as bad for poultry farmers in North Carolina, where meat processors help power the economies of many rural counties. Half of the state’s 100 counties have had population losses since 2010, the census data showed.

Bob Ford, executive director of the North Carolina Poultry Federation, predicts labor shortages at poultry plants will only worsen as people continue to leave rural communities and as migrant workers gravitate to other industries, such as building and construction.

Ford said higher pay for workers and better health care and housing benefits could help ease widespread labor shortages, but he said broader changes to immigration policy are probably the best solution.

The National Pork Producers Council is pushing for Congress to change the H-2A visa program so migrant workers can remain employed longer.

Bladen County, North Carolina, is home to the world’s largest pig slaughterhouse — Smithfield Foods’ Tar Heel plant. Between 2010 and 2020, that county’s population declined by 15.9%. Bertie County, which is home to a large Perdue Farms poultry processing facility, saw a population decrease of 15.7%.

The challenge is worse in Midwestern states that already have many of the nation’s lowest unemployment rates, said Al Juhnke, executive director of the Nebraska Pork Producers Association. Juhnke said his group wants changes to allow seasonal immigrant workers to stay in the country longer.

“These folks buy houses, they bring their families, they go to our churches, they earn money and spend it locally,” Juhnke said. “It’s really a win-win-win for these communities.”

In Iowa, Latino community leaders eagerly awaited the census numbers in hopes they would show population growth that would translate into more clout for their communities and better conditions in the food production and construction industries.

Republican politicians often try to tie reforms at the U.S.-Mexico border to pathways to citizenship for workers already in the United States, said Joe Henry, political director for the League of United Latin American Citizens local council in Des Moines. But Henry said the two issues need to be separated and that the owerns of agricultural companies understand they can’t survive without immigrants.

“They know they need that labor,” Henry said.

Rachel Gantz, a spokeswoman for the National Pork Producers Council, said her group will keep pressing Congress for change.

“Pork producers are drawing from a rapidly diminishing pool of applicants,” Gantz said. “Our producers fear — and the recent census data suggest — that this trend is unlikely to change anytime soon.”

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