As Mexico’s workforce ages and comprehensive U.S. immigration reform appears unlikely, producers of fruits, vegetables, milk and other labor-intensive commodities are facing a sobering future.
The thinly stretched labor force is nothing new. What has changed is the growing challenge of accessing qualified workers to keep pace with business expansion and vertical integration. Worries have been piqued by anti-immigration rhetoric from Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and others.
Now more than ever, American farmers and ag stakeholders reliant on a global labor pool want their peers and consumers to know that without legalizing additional paths to work on American farms, grocery prices will most certainly go up, foods consumers love will fade from shelves and inflation could push dangerously high.
“After Sept. 11 , the government got serious about closing the border, and it crippled the flow of migrant work—especially on the West Coast, where people used to come up the I-5 corridor from Mexico,” says Dan Fazio, executive director and CEO of WAFLA. Based in Lacey, Wash., WAFLA is a human resources association for seasonal employers, which ranks among the top three employers of H-2A workers. The benefits of a seasonal working stint can be attractive, but they’re unlikely to appeal to Americans who want the financial security of a year-round job, Fazio says. “A farm worker in Mexico earns $2,500 a year,” he explains. “In Washington state, farmworkers earn $3,000 or more a month, but it’s only for half the year, if that.”
Labor Pool Recedes. Fruit producers such as Adam McCarthy of Trout Creek Orchard in Oregon’s Hood River Valley know first-hand the challenges of finding farm labor. The operation grows Gala and Honeycrisp apples, as well as 11 pear varieties, eight acres of three cherry varieties, cattle, Christmas trees and flowers. Labor represents 65% to 70% of all operational costs on the multigenerational farm.
“Our labor force has changed significantly in the last 10 to 15 years,” says McCarthy, who contracts workers through WAFLA and is in Year 2 of H-2A participation. “You can watch it dry up.”
On average, agricultural workers in the region are in their 40s, he says. The age of workers has risen significantly in the past 15 years. Workers who once arrived every season to work on the farm no longer come. Hiring those who do seek on-farm work has proven tough under H-2A. “It is a program that is difficult to administer for smaller operations,” McCarthy says.
Yet H-2A also has measurable benefits. South Carolina producer Chalmers R. Carr III transitioned to H-2A in the late 1990s because the Department of Labor flagged Social Security Number mismatches on 90% of their temporary workers over two consecutive years. Most workers were using those numbers illegally to gain entry into the country.
In the ensuing 19 years, Carr and his team dug deep into H-2A and experienced tremendous growth alongside an increasing number of reliable migrant workers. This year alone, the farm has employed 623 H-2A laborers, and the operation has a 92% return rate annually.
“It’s been very beneficial to us because our quality and consistency of having a trained work force has been very good,” Carr says.
Yet even he is candid about the program’s limitations. “This program is not sufficient at all,” Carr says. It is cost-prohibitive because participating farmers must provide housing and transportation to workers.
Along with hourly wages, Carr estimates he spends a combined $12 to $13 per hour per worker on his operation. It is impractical for operations such as dairies because it excludes year-round employers from participation. What’s more, farmers have a tight application window of 15 days in which they can apply for workers. If any part of the timeline is delayed, it can mean perishable crops rot in the field.
In Fazio’s view, much of the immigration dilemma can be traced to the Immigration Reform and Control Act. Signed into law 30 years ago on Nov. 6, he says, the 1986 rules introduced three policies:
1. Amnesty for people living in the U.S. illegally
2. Two programs for guest workers, H-2A for agriculture and H-2B for non-ag jobs
3. Mandatory I-9 form to confirm worker citizenship and curb
“It didn’t work out for us,” Fazio says. “It created a rush of people who wanted to try to get amnesty, so we had more undocumented immigration in the five years after the immigration reform act than in the 10 years before.”
For agriculture, the challenge became trying to interpret and implement the H-2A program. The West Coast employs 45% of migrant and seasonal workers, Fazio says, and when producers realized the challenges of hiring through H-2A, they turned to workers in the U.S. illegally in many cases.
In other cases, producers made hires in gray legal territory.
“In Washington state, workers were always able to get driver’s licenses even though they were undocumented,” Fazio says. “You need a driver’s license to fill out an I-9, so it was like state government was working at cross-purposes with the federal government. That’s why we need to update that program.”
Since that time, lawmakers have introduced programs such as E-Verify—a citizenship reporting program Fazio thinks could help limit illegal immigration.
Demographics Of Change. Even with sweeping immigration reform, its unlikely farmers’ hiring efforts will ease much. Legal changes won’t expand an aging labor pool.
Estimates compiled by the International Labour Organization and published by Boston College suggest that by 2020, more than a third of the economically active population of Mexico will be 45 or older. That’s up from just 26% of workers age 45 in 2007.
What’s more, H-2A faces challenges from opponents who argue the federal H-2A program is bad for workers and their families. They claim the program is built on low wages, hard manual labor in harsh weather environments and substandard living conditions.
“[But] workers love it,” Fazio says. “Higher wages, better working conditions, dignity of legal presence. They don’t have to look over their shoulders. They’re here legally.”
Carr agrees the program brings mutual benefits for workers and producers. He would like to see H-2A left unchanged and a separate guest worker program added under a future farm bill. That would allow USDA—which Carr describes as a farmer-first agency—to manage the program rather than the Department of Labor, which oversees H-2A. The guest-worker visa might be extended from one year to two, and it could include a minimum wage plus 10% pay rate. “Comprehensive is just not going to pass,” Carr says. “It’s too big of a subject.”
Emotional Toll. Like Fazio, Oregon pear grower McCarthy thinks many migrant workers value agricultural employment as much as he does because they have roots in rural Mexico tending crops and livestock. They also earn an honest day’s pay—$20 per hour, on average, for fruit pickers who put in hard physical labor to harvest crops.
Yet discouragement appears to be an important factor in the dwindling labor pool. With no path to citizenship and no right to vote, laborers who have climbed 12' ladders for decades in U.S. fields are left with scarce support from the government whose people they’ve fed.
“I don’t think it’s a wage issue,” McCarthy says.
Look to countries such as Egypt if you want to see what can happen in countries where domestic food supply is threatened, Carr adds. Food riots have erupted, and the government has been overturned.
Up to 75% of specialty-crop labor in the U.S. self-identifies as without proper documentation, Carr says. “Who is going to replace 75% of our workforce to feed us?” he says. “There isn’t mechanization that can do every job on the farm.”
For more coverage of policy issues facing producers and agricultural workers including immigration, nutrient management and animal welfare, visit agweb.com/agriculture-challenge.
Three Voices: How to Fix Ag Labor
Experts in agricultural labor issues recently visited with AgriTalk radio host Mike Adams about policy changes that could improve farmers’ access to ag workers. Here are some of the views they shared.
“We agree that mandatory employment verification on its own will be devastating to farm-worker families and to agriculture broadly. It really does not make sense to begin with enforcement without addressing the broken immigration system. They need to be addressed as a whole, and the solution for agriculture is to address the current experienced workforce to allow those workers an opportunity to come forward, to obtain lawful permanent residency and to eventually become citizens.” —Adrienne DerVartanian, director of immigration and labor rights for Farm Worker Justice
“If you’re going to do it piecemeal, the sequence does matter. If you’re going to beef up enforcement by going with a mandatory E-Verify system, then you have to do something on visas or work permits or whatever the correct phrase is for the existing immigrant workforce in the United States and the ag sector because otherwise, we’re looking for disaster.” —Stephanie Mercier, director of policy for Farm Journal Foundation
“It is, in part, about what the politics will bear. There was a time in this debate going back to, really, the year 2000 through about 2005 where there was a unique bipartisan agreement specific to agriculture, and the dialogue about other reforms really had not ripened. There was an opportunity, unfortunately, it was an opportunity missed by Congress, to take a stepwise approach back then.” —Craig Regelbrugge, co-chair for the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform