The continued congressional stalemate on immigration reform means lower food production, higher food costs, economic and job losses across Midwest agriculture, according to a study released this week by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. U.S. immigration policies are failing to serve the ag sector and those shortcomings are especially acute in the Midwest, a region with distinct needs for year-round versus seasonal immigrant labor, says Stephanie Mercier, an economist who conducted the study.
President Obama’s Nov. 20 executive order on immigration provides limited benefit to agriculture, but “it fails to fully address Midwest agriculture’s unique needs for legislative immigration reform,” Mercier says.
Even with an imported labor supply of more than 1 million, farms face up to a 30% shortage in labor, says Mercier, also the senior policy and advocacy adviser for the Farm Journal Foundation, and formerly a USDA and Senate Agriculture Committee economist.
Several factors—both real and perceived—contribute to the reluctance of native-born workers to seek jobs in agriculture, she says, whether on farms or in processing facilities. These include low wages compared to other occupations involving hard physical labor, difficult working conditions, often transitory employment opportunities, and the prospect of extensive travel for undertaking seasonal work.
Some workers are being pulled away from agriculture into other sectors. The inflation-adjusted hourly wage for construction workers has consistently been two to three times higher than for crop farm workers over the last few decades, data show.
“Furthermore, the tradition of younger family members working on multiple-generation, family-run farms seems to be weakening in some parts of the country, especially given the declining number of these farms,” Mercier says.
In one case, after a printing plant shut down in Waterloo, Wis., putting hundreds of people out of work, only a few of those workers applied for jobs at nearby Crave Brothers Dairy. She adds that in August 2013, a large Ohio tomato grower closed its operations because the owner could not find enough workers to harvest his crop.
There are 57,000 immigrant farm workers in the Midwest, filling labor slots in animal care in dairy and livestock operations, harvest and post-harvest work in crop production (especially for specialty crops) and assembly-line work in many food processing facilities.
Mercier notes that in seed corn production, detassling crews that once were primarily filled by local high school students are increasingly made up of migrant workers.
Across the Midwest, the share of hired farm workers working 150 days or more per year is about a third of all hired workers and is comparable to the national average. But the share is higher than the national average in Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and Wisconsin, all states where dairy and other livestock operations dominate the state’s ag economy.
“With few other options to legally hire year-round immigrant farm workers, farms often rely on undocumented labor,” Mercier notes.
She says that Midwest farm group representatives are concerned about the long-term impacts of stalled comprehensive immigration reform and expect four things will happen: there will be less U.S. specialty crop and dairy production; the costs of everything will go up; overall economic activity will decline because of the uncertainty of the farm labor supply, and the backlash will cause more production to move off-shore.
“Without immigration reform, many jobs will move overseas and the U.S. will begin importing a larger share of its food,” Mercier says. Quoting John Feinblatt, chair of the Partnership for a New American Economy, “we either bring in our workers or we bring in our food. American agriculture depends on getting this right.”
Mercier says that while the Senate passed an immigration reform bill in 2013 with bi-partisan support, the House has not brought the Senate bill to the floor for consideration, instead having started a piecemeal approach.
Representatives of farm and commodity groups in the Midwest strongly support the Senate bill, citing the need for both regularizing the status of the existing pool of farm workers—some of whom have developed unique sets of skills having worked a number of years on a given operation—and for an improved farm guest worker program.
One challenge, Mercier says, is that “not enough Midwest farm or commodity groups or Midwest senators were directly engaged in the agriculture-specific negotiations” of the Senate bill. “Therefore, not all of the nuanced agricultural needs and distinctions between the Midwest and other regions of the country were reflected in the final bill.”
Immigration reform “is urgently needed for a robust ag sector in the Midwest,” she says, with the following recommendations: A year-round temporary worker visa; elimination of arbitrary caps or quotes; new worker visas before enforcement measures; protections for employers if a verification plan is mandated; limits on state-level restrictions on immigrant workers; recognition that Midwest agriculture needs high-skilled immigrants, too; and respect for labor and human rights.