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Protecting American workers in the Heartland
Guest column by Linda McMahon & Luke Lindberg
American farmers and ranchers are the unsung heroes of our nation, working tirelessly every day to provide the food that sustains us all. They are also the lifeblood of our rural communities and small towns, fostering a way of life that encourages hard work, family values and traditions, and a spirit of service toward one’s neighbors.
Farming and ranching have also always been uniquely challenging. The work is unpredictable and dependent on factors that are outside of anyone’s control. It requires intense labor and long days. And over the last few years, the industry has been hit particularly hard by dysfunctional economic policies, out-of-control inflation, and unnecessary new federal regulations.
Today, industry leaders from South Dakota, neighboring states, and even Washington, D.C., are gathered in Sioux Falls to discuss how to address these challenges at the Midwest Agricultural Export Summit, hosted by South Dakota Trade. One major opportunity to help the industry grow and thrive is to expand access to international markets. To take full advantage of this opportunity, we must start by building a strong workforce, fostering an environment where every business can succeed, and ensuring that even the smallest of businesses can participate in the global marketplace.
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Building a strong workforce remains one of the biggest challenges for the agriculture industry today. The average age of a farmer is 58 years old — and many don’t have a succession plan. Governments at all levels should partner with industry to invest in workforce training and development programs that bring more skilled labor to the agriculture industry.
One way to accomplish this is by creating and expanding apprenticeship opportunities in agribusiness. As recently as 2017, there were hardly any ag apprentices in the country — but by 2021, there were more than 1,000. Occupations such as soil and plant scientists, animal caretakers and equipment mechanics lend themselves well to the hands-on training an apprenticeship can provide.
Policymakers should also find ways to streamline occupational licensing laws and permitting requirements, continue investing in high-speed broadband in rural areas so that farms can take advantage of new technologies and expand vocational education for K-12 students to introduce more high schoolers to the agricultural careers available to them. Thankfully, South Dakota is already prioritizing all of these opportunities. Gov. Kristi Noem, with a farming and ranching background herself, has been a leader in boosting this industry and finding creative solutions to workforce challenges statewide.
Developing the greatest workforce in the world is one goal we must prioritize, but if we truly want our friends, families and colleagues to reach their full potential, the federal government must also foster an environment where every business can succeed — mostly by getting out of the way. Unfortunately, the current administration in Washington has done the opposite, pumping trillions of unnecessary dollars into the economy, which has sent prices skyrocketing for everything from fertilizer to equipment — resulting in the highest food inflation since 1979.
Further, agribusinesses and manufacturers are bearing the brunt of a massive increase of new federal regulations that strip them of meaningful on-farm decision making. The current administration has put forward proposals to ban certain pesticides, heavily regulate water use and limit methane emissions.
Climate czar John Kerry said the quiet part out loud just recently, admitting that to achieve Democrats’ “net zero” emissions goal, they will need to go after agriculture. But they are missing the reality that no one has more of an incentive to protect and preserve our land than the people who make a living off of it.
And to top it all off, this administration wants to increase the death tax, which would make it harder for farmers to leave behind their farms to the next generation — a point of pride for many in the heartland.
Finally, as policymakers build up the ag industry’s workforce and push for a truly business-friendly regulatory climate, they will position agricultural businesses of all sizes to be able to take advantage of international market opportunities. The U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) set a new standard for international trade, featuring the first-ever chapter focused solely on small businesses and ensuring preferential market access for U.S. farm products in Canada and Mexico. Countless small businesses and agricultural operations have been able to welcome new customers from all over North America since the USMCA was finalized, and all future trade agreements should borrow from the USMCA’s playbook.
In addition, organizations like South Dakota Trade exist to help South Dakota’s agribusinesses identify international markets for their products. Nearly three-quarters of South Dakota’s exports in 2021 were agricultural, and farms and ranches of all sizes should consider how to fit international exports into their business strategies.
Agriculture is a force for economic growth, community cohesion, and strong American values, both in South Dakota and throughout the U.S. The food that we all eat is a testament to the hard work, dedication and resilience of those who till the land. By investing in a strong workforce, reducing taxes and regulations, and expanding access to international markets, our Nation can ensure that this industry continues to thrive for years to come.
Linda McMahon is the chair of the America First Policy Institute (AFPI), as well as AFPI’s Center for the American Worker. She is also the former administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Luke Lindberg is the president and CEO of South Dakota Trade, a public-private partnership that navigates international trade for South Dakota. He is also a senior fellow at AFPI’s Center for American Prosperity.