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Farmers may be facing more challenges, at one time, than ever before

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Costs of fertilizer, seeds, fuel and farming equipment have all risen. Shipping delays have plagued the supply chain, migrant agricultural workers have been delayed at the U.S. border, and a shortage of irrigation water is an imminent concern.

JOEL ANDERSON: This is actually an interesting year and set of circumstances. Farmers are always subject to the vicissitudes of nature, and the risk is always inherent to what they do. But U.S. farmers and ranchers this year and - currently are facing more threats and challenges all at once than perhaps ever before.

FADEL: To talk about this, we are joined by Joel Anderson, the executive director of the Snake River Farmers Association, a nonprofit organization of agricultural producers. Good morning, Joel.

ANDERSON: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So have you seen this kind of volatility before, the issue of water shortages and drought in the Mountain West and beyond? What's the water outlook for this growing cycle in places like Idaho?

ANDERSON: The Idaho governor approved an emergency drought declaration for 34 of Idaho's 44 counties, essentially signaling that there's, across the state, going to be a substantial shortage of water. Even a wet April and an increase to the snowpack in the mountains around hasn't necessarily relieved the problem.

FADEL: So does this suggest any type of long-term shift in the commodities market for farmers nationwide?

ANDERSON: It's tough to know because it's such - we're on the microscale, but it's such a macro problem...

FADEL: Yeah.

ANDERSON: ...And issue. I think the water shortages are - they come and go. I would say that the biggest challenges - and what we're hearing from our producers - the biggest challenges are, big-picture, the labor shortage and concern in agriculture and the availability of parts, the disruption to the supply chain. So those three factors - water, which is beyond their control; labor, which is beyond their control; and the shipping problems, also beyond their control - those three factors that farmers cannot adapt to and cannot change their practices to accommodate, those are the biggest challenges.

FADEL: What policy changes would you want to see so that small farmers can weather this storm?

ANDERSON: One of the biggest challenges we face is our immigration laws. There are so many challenges facing farmers trying to find a lawful workforce and have enough workers. That's a big nut to crack, and it's one that people have tried to address for decades. The quickest-affecting impact is modifying the H-2A visa program, creating a sustainable workforce. And Congress has made efforts to try to address it, but they've never gotten across the finish line.

FADEL: Is there any silver lining here?

ANDERSON: The silver lining for now, this year, wherever there's a challenge, there's generally an opportunity. And farmers are normally just the right amount of stubborn and ornery to make it through the hard times. Commodity prices are good, and if they can weather the other challenges, then they just might make it through.

FADEL: Joel Anderson is the executive director of the Snake River Farmers Association. Thank you for joining me.

ANDERSON: Thanks, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.