Hard times in a good year: Why lifting Title 42 won’t help Utah’s farm labor shortage

Jun 23, 2023, 1:27 PM | Updated: 1:47 pm

Utah's farm labor shortage. In a field next to Ogden River, about an hour's drive north of Salt Lak...

FILE: Migrant workers hoe weeds along rows of onions near Corrine, Utah. Utah farmers and lawmakers say that a change to Title 42 won't affect Utah's farm labor shortage. (Keith Johnson, Deseret News)

(Keith Johnson, Deseret News)

OGDEN, Utah — Utah’s farm labor shortage isn’t immediately apparent in a field next to Ogden River, about an hour’s drive north of Salt Lake City. There, five men are using weed whackers to clear a stretch of irrigation trench that feeds into an onion crop.

One of the workers, Baltasar Sampayo, has a mixture of sweat, dirt and grass clippings encrusted on his face — the only clean patch of skin is around his eyes, a perfect outline of the safety glasses he’s just removed.

(Hugo’s audio report as featured on Dave and Dujanovic, is below.)

He’s from Mexico and has worked on Gibson Green Acres farm for eight years.

“I have my house; I have my truck thanks to this job,” he said.

He sends the money he earns in the United States home to his family.

“We have a stable life, both my mother and my son and my wife are not lacking.”

Baltazar’s boss is Ron Gibson, who, while running his own dairy and onion farm, is the president of the Utah Farm Bureau.

“Our family’s been here for a dang long time, we’ve been on the same farm since 1869,” he recollected. But he said he’s hurting because of Utah’s farm labor shortage. 

The workers are few and far between

For Ron’s farm to be fully operational he needs about 60 people working, but workers like Baltazar have been increasingly hard to come by for some time now.

“It’s been really, really hard, pre-COVID and extremely difficult post-COVID,” he said.

Utah farmers rely heavily on migrant labor from south of the border. It’s been this way for generations.

“20 years ago, we used to have five to ten people a week coming around looking for a job, 10 years ago, we used to have people coming looking for jobs. Now nobody comes looking for jobs,” Ron explained.

Can’t put all the blame on COVID-19

It would be easy to point the finger at COVID-19, the blanket excuse for any economic woe in the last few years. But when it comes to immigration and labor, it’s a fair accusation.

Pandemic-era policies like Title 42 essentially put a stop to immigration for three years.

Title 42 was lifted on May 11 this year. But Ron doesn’t think it will ease the labor problem facing farmers across the country.

“We don’t really think so,” Ron said. “It’s been a long time since people have come around looking for jobs on the farm.”

Lifting Title 42 isn’t the answer

There are several reasons why the end of Title 42 is unlikely to impact Utah’s farm labor shortage.

First, if you speak to immigration lawyers, they will tell you it’s a different type of migrant crossing the border nowadays.

Most are fleeing conflicts in countries like Venezuela. The people coming to the U.S. are often well-educated and held professions in things like medicine, education, and law. So, there’s less incentive to deskill to farm labor.

Secondly, the H2A Work Visa, which is tailored to agriculture, was active throughout the enforcement of Title 42.

Farmers in the USA have used it for years to get workers legally. But there’s a major flaw in the program.

“We can use the H2A program for our produce farm, we cannot use it for our dairy farm. It’s against the law to use it for a dairy farm,” Ron said.

The H2A Visa does not accommodate for labor with livestock. Most farms in Utah run livestock.

A familiar foe

At the end of the day, it all comes down to the age-old foe. Money.

“Most of them leave [ranches] because for example in construction, they pay $20 to $22 dollars (an hour). In a ranch they pay up to $16,” Baltazar said.

“It is logical that like any person, right? They will go where they earn more.”

Short-staffed farming operations don’t produce to their capacity, which means to fill the hole that’s left, markets have to import goods from elsewhere.

“I think the craziest thing we can do from a perspective of national security, is watch our food have to be produced somewhere else,” Ron said.

Immigration, labor, and Utah Gov. Spencer Cox

Gov. Cox has traditionally been quite vocal on the topics of immigration and labor.

He told KSL in a sit-down interview that immigration and labor are issues that both sides of the political spectrum agree on.

“Most Republicans actually support fixing legal immigration and (making) it easier for immigrants to come legally, and most Democrats also believe that we should secure the border.”

Governor Cox believes immigration and labor go hand in hand and should be a state-handled issue.

“It is frustrating because immigration under the Constitution is a federal issue. That’s very clear. States have tried to step in,” he said.

A solution for Utah’s farm labor shortage, gathering dust on the shelf

Over a decade ago Utah passed comprehensive immigration reform, which has been ultimately ignored by Congress.

“I think it’s a model for the nation. Unfortunately, neither the Obama administration nor the Trump administration allowed us to implement that immigration reform,” the Governor said.

“So we have the solution sitting on a shelf right here in Utah.

“It would allow for special work visas for people who are here, would give them an opportunity to not gain citizenship but to gain legal status, which is really important, and would bring illegal immigrants out of the shadows. They would pay taxes like everyone else.

“So those solutions are out there. Republicans and Democrats supported it.”

Even though the Governor says the solutions are there, farmers like Ron are getting desperate and don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel.

“I just drove around my farm today … feel like we’re just swamped, and we’re behind. I mean, there’s so much work that needs to be done here,” Ron said.

The Governor seems to feel the same way.

“I’m not holding my breath, though, when it comes to Congress and their ability to deal with a very complicated and controversial issue.”



Related reading:

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Send it to the KSL NewsRadio team here.


Agriculture officials said the fire most likely started after a piece of equipment malfunctioned at...

Emma Keddington and Simone Seikaly

Equipment malfunction suspected after fire at Utah egg farm

A 21,000 square foot barn at Oakdell Egg Farms quickly caught fire when a power washer caught fire.

2 hours ago

FILE: An arson investigation is underway after several suspicious fires in Salt Lake City on Tuesda...

Britt Johnson

Salt Lake City Fire conduct arson investigation Tuesday morning

An arson investigation is underway after several suspicious fires in Salt Lake City on Tuesday.

4 hours ago

Ahead of the NHL to Utah party on Wednesday, Utahns crowded the plaza of the Delta Center and waite...

Simone Seikaly, Eric Cabrera, Emma Keddington, Adam Small

Utahns showing up for the NHL in Utah

Ahead of the NHL to Utah party, Utahns crowded the plaza of the Delta Center and waited in long lines for the party to start.

5 hours ago

Two proposals — one aimed at students attending schools on F1 visas and the other targeting all a...

Amy Donaldson

Big changes proposed for Utah high school sports involving local, international students

Proposals involving F1 visas and athletic transfers were approved Wednesday by the executive committee of the Utah High School Activities Association.

6 hours ago

Utahns were reunited with their cat after they accidentally shipped it to California with an Amazon...

Eliza Pace, KSLTV.com

Utahns reunited with pet cat they accidentally shipped with Amazon return

A Utah couple got the surprise of their life when they got a call that their missing pet cat was found in Los Angeles in an Amazon box.

8 hours ago

Smoke billows into the morning sky following the detonation of dynamite that was inside of a Hollad...

Adam Small

Neighbor reacts to detonation of old dynamite found in Holladay home

After crews detonated old dynamite that was found on Tuesday, one neighbor shared his reaction.

9 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

a doctor putting her hand on the chest of her patient...

Intermountain Health

Intermountain nurse-midwives launch new gynecology access clinic

An access clinic launched by Intermountain nurse-midwives provides women with comprehensive gynecology care.

Young couple hugging while a realtor in a suit hands them keys in a new home...

Utah Association of Realtors

Buying a home this spring? Avoid these 5 costly pitfalls

By avoiding these pitfalls when buying a home this spring, you can ensure your investment will be long-lasting and secure.

a person dressed up as a nordic viking in a dragon boat resembling the bear lake monster...

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

The Legend of the Bear Lake Monster

The Bear Lake monster has captivated people in the region for centuries, with tales that range from the believable to the bizarre.


Live Nation Concerts

All the artists coming to Utah First Credit Union Amphitheatre (formerly USANA Amp) this summer

Summer concerts are more than just entertainment; they’re a celebration of life, love, and connection.

Mother and cute toddler child in a little fancy wooden cottage, reading a book, drinking tea and en...

Visit Bear Lake

How to find the best winter lodging in Bear Lake, Utah

Winter lodging in Bear Lake can be more limited than in the summer, but with some careful planning you can easily book your next winter trip.

Happy family in winter clothing at the ski resort, winter time, watching at mountains in front of t...

Visit Bear Lake

Ski more for less: Affordable ski resorts near Bear Lake, Utah

Plan your perfect ski getaway in Bear Lake this winter, with pristine slopes, affordable tickets, and breathtaking scenery.

Hard times in a good year: Why lifting Title 42 won’t help Utah’s farm labor shortage