The National Pork Producers Council held its spring Legislative Action Conference April 6 and 7, with nearly 100 pork producers in Washington, D.C., meeting with their members of Congress to discuss pork industry priorities. Producers attending the biennial fly-in educated lawmakers on the need for adequate funding to prevent, prepare for and combat foreign animal diseases, including African swine fever; for reforming visas programs to address an agricultural labor shortage; and for opening new and expanding existing export markets.
Terry Wolters, NPPC president and pork producer from Pipestone, Minnesota, shares that expanding the H-2A visa program for year-round agricultural workers and packing facilities workers is a crucial ask for pork producers. The H-2A visa program, created in 1987 under the Immigration Reform and Control Act, allows foreign nationals entry into the United States for temporary or seasonal agricultural work for up to 10 months. Wolters says the hog industry needs workers to be able to stay longer, especially as many job openings are for high-skilled positions.
According to an NPPC fact sheet, hog farm employment growth has declined in recent years despite growing labor needs and rising wages, falling by 0.3% from 2019 to 2020 while average weekly wages increased by 5.7%. In most top hog-producing states, unemployment rates are well below the national rate while labor force participation rates are higher, with 8 of 10 currently having rates below 4%.
When asked about the potential for Congressional action on stalled immigration reform, Wolters says he can’t speculate whether Congress will or won’t act, but pork producers did encourage them to support expanding the H-2A program. Wolters says Congress seems to be “genuinely supportive of our need for labor.”
Nick Giordano, NPPC vice president and counsel, global government affairs, says NPPC can’t take no for an answer on inaction from Congress. “We know the political calculus is difficult, but it’s extremely important to our producers. We’re going to keep hammering it home.”
Giordano adds, “Labor is a critical bottleneck for us. If we had more available labor, more pork translates to lower consumer prices.”
Economists with Iowa State University, using a study from USDA’s Economic Research Service, determined that native-born workers and permanent residents currently cannot offset the need for foreign-born labor. NPPC supports visa system reform that provides agricultural employers with sustained access to year-round labor and a pathway to legal status for those with agricultural experience already in the United States.
The Department of Homeland Security recently announced an additional 35,000 H-2B visas for the second half of fiscal 2022 to address the country’s ongoing labor shortage. The H-2B program permits employers to temporarily hire workers for non-agricultural labor or services, including meatpacking. The allocation consists of 23,500 visas for returning workers who received an H-2B visa or were granted H-2B status during one of the past three fiscal years.
The other 11,500 visas, which are exempt from the returning worker requirement, are for workers from El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti and Honduras. A provision in the recently approved omnibus spending bill states that previous H-2B visa holders who receive one of the additional visas won’t count against the overall H-2B cap. In January, the administration allowed an additional 20,000 foreign workers into the country under the H-2B visa program for the period Oct. 1, 2021, to March 31, 2022.
Employers requesting H-2B visas must attest to the U.S. Department of Labor that they will offer a wage that equals or exceeds the higher of a region’s prevailing wage, applicable federal minimum wage or the state or local minimum wage.
Pork trade could fall behind
NPPC says the U.S. pork industry is the most competitive in the world and is well-positioned to capitalize on growth opportunities in the Asia-Pacific region, the fastest-growing economic region in the world. Over the past 12 years, on average, the United States has been the top pork-exporting country in the world, sending $8.1 billion worth of pork to more than 100 countries in 2021.
Exports added $62.86, representing 32% of the $191 average value of a hog, to the price producers received for every U.S. hog marketed in 2021. But U.S. exports to Asia-Pacific nations are suppressed by tariff and non-tariff barriers that would be eliminated through successful free trade agreement negotiations.
Giordano says although this administration has not pursued new free trade agreements, since taking office it has accomplished significant trade wins in addressing other issues featuring pork. Four of the six touted trade wins have allowed for expanded pork trade including agreements with the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand.
Wolters says NPPC is advocating for reentry into the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership. Unless it negotiates new or expands existing FTAs with countries in the Asia-Pacific, the United States will lose market share in the region. Joining the CPTPP would eliminate tariff and non-tariff barriers, significantly boosting U.S. pork exports and creating American jobs. The 11-member CPTPP – Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam – has 500 million consumers and $13.5 trillion of GDP. At least six other countries, including China, South Korea and Taiwan, have applied to join or expressed interest in joining the CPTPP.
For example, of the uncompetitive advantage in Vietnam a recent agreement allows for lower most favored nations tariff, although it still does not put the U.S. at a competitive rate. Pork going into Vietnam is still almost double the tariff rate for frozen pork compared to competitors such as the EU, Canada and Mexico through the CPTPP. NPPC says joining the CPTPP would put the United States on a level playing field with other pork traders, such as the European Union and Russia, that already have FTAs with the 11 Asia-Pacific countries.
Animal disease funding
In July 2021, African swine fever was confirmed in the Dominican Republic, then Haiti. This is the first time in 40 years it has been in the Western Hemisphere.
The United States has established a World Organization for Animal Health (OIE)-recognized protection zone on the neighboring islands of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The protection zone will help limit the negative impact to trade of pork products from the mainland United States in case ASF were found on those islands. NPPC has been working for years with USDA and Customs and Border Protection to prevent ASF and prepare to respond to and recover from a potential outbreak.
To prevent ASF and other foreign animal diseases from reaching the United States and to prepare for them if they do, NPPC suggested to Congress funds must be appropriated to:
- build the capacity of USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Veterinary Services field staff to respond to and address an outbreak on the mainland United States or U.S. territories;
- further build the infrastructure and workforce capabilities of the National Animal Health Laboratory Network, which conducts surveillance of and testing for FADs; and
- build capacity at ports of entry to prevent unauthorized meat, animal byproducts and other vectors that can carry ASF from entering the country and infecting U.S. agriculture.