(July 16) If people still fail to grasp the severity of the labor shortage in U.S. agriculture, they should see the prison guards standing watch over inmates toiling in Colorado cabbage fields and Idaho potato packing sheds.

City and state politicians are drafting laws that scare undocumented workers out of certain areas, while federal lawmakers are at an impasse on immigration reform. The resulting labor crunch has some companies so desperate that they are turning to their local prisons for help.

Lynn Wilcox, president of Floyd Wilcox & Sons Inc., Rexburg, Idaho, said inmates will represent 40% of the company’s labor force at the peak of the potato season this year, the 10th season the company will use inmate labor.

Five other Idaho potato companies are using inmates to fill the labor gap. Pueblo County in Colorado also has turned to prison labor for the first time this season, with two crews of 10 women working for local growers.

While the concept helps growers fill a need and gives inmates a positive experience outside prison walls, the mere existence of the programs underlines the need for immigration reform.

Mike Stuart, president of the Maitland-based Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, said he expects more of his organization’s members to turn to the H-2A guest worker program but acknowledged that solution has obstacles.

Last year there were fewer than 60,000 H-2A workers certified by the Department of Labor. Without reform, that paltry number will have to increase as more companies are forced to use the program.

Jim Allen, president of the Fishers-based New York Apple Association, said the average H-2A worker in New York makes $9.64 an hour. Companies also must pay transportation costs for workers to and from this country.

“There weren’t that many H-2A workers in the system last year,” he said. “Growers went through the process and thought they were lined up, and then people didn’t show up. It just didn’t happen.”

Neither did immigration reform. Without it, the U.S. — which had a record trade deficit of $763.6 billion last year — will be forced to outsource more of its growing operations and import more of its food supply.

Inmate labor is one solution, at least for now. People who don’t like the idea should push their representatives in Washington, D.C., for immigration reform and a workable guest worker program.