Updated: Sep 7
As a small farmer starting from scratch, there comes a point when it is necessary to hire someone to work on your operation. A few years ago, we reached the point where our acreage was beyond what one person could reasonably manage during the growing season. Unfortunately, hiring farm employees is a challenging task.
Farmers and ranchers not only face the universal challenge of labor shortages and cost increases, but they also enter the paths of an ever-growing regulatory weed patch filled with many obstacles. Some legislators, bureaucrats, and judges create rules and regulations inside and outside of their expertise, complicating the operations of many farmers and ranchers, and pushing many small operations out of business.
Hiring workers in this weedy labyrinth is a strategic nightmare. Agricultural operations must be aware of the many rules and future rules that could impact their businesses. For example:
Local and state governments repeatedly push regulations that hurt the agriculture industry.
Local city councils have added additional permits to migrant worker housing, complicating an already distorted system for housing much-needed and highly-valued farmworkers.
State governments also increase pressure on farm and ranch operations by adopting special interest legislation that hurts farmworkers, like removing the agricultural overtime exemption.
Again and again, farmworkers have spoken to legislative authorities to share how much this law hurts their families and their ability to choose their best interests. In an undemocratic display, two Washington state legislators tried to alter the testimony of farmworkers hurt by the new overtime requirements, attempting to fit the testimony into their own personal narrative.
Bureaucratic agencies seem to sit poised against farmers and their ability to function. In many matters, state and federal agencies complicate legislative proposals and extend the reach of the law. This is most obvious in water law cases and the EPA.
Judges have re-interpreted codified law to align closely with special interest groups, and far from a clear reading of the legislation.
Legislating from the bench, the Washington Supreme Court reinterpreted the piece-rate pay laws and overcomplicated the ability for farms to pay workers based on performance. In 2018, the court decided that for agricultural workers, piece rate pay could no longer use the workweek averaging method to guarantee minimum wage. The court later ruled in 2019, that the workweek averaging method can be used for non-agricultural workers.
Even if farmers and ranchers could navigate the legislative and bureaucratic portions of their legal responsibilities, it is impossible to predict the future decisions of courts aligned with groups antagonistic to agriculture. The risk of future lawsuits and court-mandated reparations can easily force many farmers out of business, discouraging farmers from entering the industry all together, or encouraging operations to find non-labor means to grow and harvest their crop.
For any agricultural resource (labor and otherwise) regulations need to be practical, balancing the true costs and benefits to the farms and communities affected. In our upcoming study, Mountain States Policy Center identified our top ten recommendations to protect and improve a free agricultural market. Our first three recommendations highlight the need to weed out damaging regulations to promote a free market for agriculture:
State and local governments should minimize regulatory pressure on the agriculture industry.
Bureaucratic agencies need to remove excessive rulemaking from agendas and workloads.
Judicial branches must respect codified law and not legislate through rulings.
Stay tuned for our upcoming study. The expected release date is early September!
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