Jen Sorenson. (NPCC photo)

An Ankeny woman who is president of the National Pork Producers Council is urging members of the U.S. Senate to reform the visa system so immigrants working as farm hands or in meat packing plants can stay permanently.

“Our foreign born workforce is an essential part of our supply chain and we need visa reform to reflect our year-round needs,” says NPPC president Jen Sorenson.

Sorenson is also the communications for Iowa Select Farms, the largest pork producer in Iowa and the 8th largest in the United States according to the company’s website.

“Unfortunately the U.S. is suffering from a serious labor shortage negatively impacting our farms and our processing plants,” Sorenson says. “As any pork producer will tell you, there is no pork season. It requires a full time, hard working and dedicated workforce on our farms and in our processing plants.”

The current H-2A visa program allows agribusinesses to fill temporary positions with foreign-born workers. Sorenson says that’s designed for seasonal agriculture, like vegetable and fruit farms, not for livestock operations which need a workforce all year long.

“If the labor shortage is not addressed, it could lead to farms and packing plants shutting down,” Sorenson says. “As a result, pork production would be constrained, leading to higher food prices for consumers and the United States becoming an unreliable trading partner for the many countries around the world that rely on our pork.”

In March, the U.S. House passed a bill to make changes in the visa program for temporary farm workers. Sorenson says the bill is an “excellent solution” — if the bill’s cap on the number of visas in the bill is eliminated, so an unlimited number of visas for farm workers is available.

“We would not want to find ourselves in situation where we are competing against our fellow livestock farmers for a specific number of workers,” Sorenson says, “and that is why we ask for an uncapped H-2A program and also a year-round H-2A program.”

Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley invited Sorenson to testify before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee this week. Grassley also invited Leon Sequeira, an assistant U.S. Labor Secretary in President Bush’s Administration and the former legal counsel to the Senate’s Republican leader.

“The worker shortage on our farms continues to get worse with each passing year and it is threatening the future viability of labor-intensive agriculture in America,” he said during the hearing. “Farm work is honest, honorable and necessary work, but there are simply not enough U.S. workers willing to do it.”

The National Pork Producers Council’s president told senators the labor shortage in the pork industry is exacerbates by continued population decline in rural areas of the country, where most pork production and processing is located.