Straight From D.C.: Farm Labor Outlook Still Precarious

March 4, 2017 02:20 AM

The labor situation for U.S. agriculture has only worsened in recent years. While labor issues aren’t typically addressed in the farm bill, Lynn Jacquez, an expert on farm labor issues and principal at CJ Lake LLC, suggests making an exception this time. She outlined her reasons at an event sponsored by AGree, a food and ag policy nonprofit, to discuss policy issues for the new farm bill:

  • Much of the U.S. farm labor force consists of immigrants, and at least 70% of these workers, and maybe as many as 90%, don’t have proper documentation for their work.
  • For the most part, the U.S. agricultural labor force is no longer migratory, so workers don’t “follow the harvest” across the country.
  • The inflow of new labor for the U.S. agricultural sector has basically halted. In 2015, turnover was only 2%, as opposed to about 25% a few decades ago. As a result, the average age of farmworkers has increased in recent years to 38 years old.
  • A recent study by Texas A&M University, commissioned by the American Farm Bureau, found labor shortages have reduced the potential value of U.S. fruit and vegetable production by at least $3 billion annually.

President Donald Trump remains determined to erect a wall across the U.S. border with Mexico, even though a 2015 Pew Research Center report found net Mexican immigration between 2009 and 2014 to the U.S. was negative—more Mexicans returned to their home country than immigrated to the U.S.

The executive order authorizing the wall contained provisions that could lead to a further decrease in the U.S. farm labor force. On Feb. 4, the Los Angeles Times reported the new administration has given Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials the authority to target immigrants for removal based on their use of false identification cards or illegal use of SNAP benefits. The story also indicated a draft of an additional executive order had been leaked that would allow targeting immigrants for seeking benefits under health programs such as Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program. All these provisions could potentially make as many as 8 million undocumented immigrants vulnerable to deportation, including most farmworkers.

Two members of Congress from New York have introduced the Family Farm Relief Act of 2017 (H.R. 281), which would transfer the H2-A farm guest worker visa program from the Department of Labor to USDA, take steps to make the application process more user-friendly and allow for year-round employment for such workers. The bill has only four co-sponsors, which does not bode well for its consideration and passage anytime soon.

Some farmers are looking for ways to work around the scarcity of farm labor. In South Dakota, for example, dairy farmers are recruiting farmworkers from Puerto Rico because they’re U.S. citizens. 

Some farmers who rely on manual labor to harvest crops or care for animals are turning to mechanical or robotic alternatives, such as lettuce thinning machines or robotic milking parlors.  There is also research underway at several universities to develop varieties of crops such as chile peppers (New Mexico State), raspberries (Washington State) and tomatoes (University of Florida) that are more amenable to mechanical picking.

Fruit and vegetable acres have been declining in recent years. According to USDA, total acres of fresh market vegetables dropped by 9% between 2010 and 2015, even though consumption of these foods in the U.S. has been increasing. As former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack once said, “We can either import workers or we can import food.”

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