Who Will Pick Our Produce?

August 26, 2013

With the much debated immigration bill still lingering in the House of Representatives, farmers across the nation are biting their nails – waiting and wondering if new policies will translate into more available workers to pick their crops.

From the upcoming, September issue of Food, Nutrition & Science...

Take a drive up the 101 Freeway North in California, and you’ll notice something striking. Fields once filled with migrant workers are somewhat empty, and a lot of produce that relies on these workers for harvest is on the verge of rot. With the much debated immigration bill still lingering in the House of Representatives, farmers across the nation are biting their nails – waiting and wondering if new policies will translate into more available workers to pick their crops.

According to a study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (ERS), a large reduction in the number of unauthorized workers in all sectors of the U.S. economy could lead to lower output and exports in both agriculture and the broader economy. Hired farm labor is extremely important to U.S. agriculture, accounting for about 17% of production expenses overall and 40% of these expenses for fruit, vegetables and nursery products. Yet over the last 15 years, about half of the hired laborers employed on U.S. farms lack the legal status to be here.

Bob Stallman, President of the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), says that the AFBF welcomed the passing of the Senate bill, calling the bill fair, workable – and long overdue. Stallman says the bill will help ensure an adequate supply of farm labor in this country while strengthening surveillance across high-risk border areas. The recently passed Senate bill (S. 744) includes a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and also includes an amendment for more border security.

“One of the best ways to improve border security is to create a legal, workable way for farm workers to enter our country. With less time and resources wasted locking up lettuce harvesters, the focus can shift to where it properly belongs,” says Stallman.

A recently released White House report, Fixing Our Broken Immigration System,”agrees. In the short term, if immigration issues aren’t resolved, they estimate agriculture production losses of between $1.73 billion to $3.12 billion in California alone. There would be significant losses across many other states as well. The report points out that there continues to be insufficient U.S. workers to fill labor needs, and that “by providing a path to earned citizenship for currently unauthorized farmworkers, the bipartisan Senate bill gives unauthorized workers and their families the security they need to invest in their own skills and education and pursue higher-paying employment.” 

The House bill will most likely not include a path to citizenship. However, immigration legal issues are only part of the problem American farms are currently facing. Over the past four decades, the number of Mexican-born persons living in the United States increased to about 12 million. Now, net migration flows from Mexico to the U.S. have declined to roughly zero and may be negative, say data from the Pew Hispanic Center. About 30% of all current U.S. immigrants were born in Mexico.

The data reveal the change in immigration flow to be a result of several factors, including a slowing of the U.S. economy, heightened border enforcement, and better economic conditions in Mexico. Indeed, there are fewer and fewer laborers toiling on farms across the nation, and the ones that are still there are getting older – too old to do the intense work that farm labor requires. Perhaps most significantly, younger potential replacements are less anxious to get into the business, opting instead to stay in Mexico and get a job there. 

So what’s a farmer to do? Higher wages might entice more workers. More mechanization could reduce farm labor demand for fruit and vegetable crops – but progress is very uneven, says Linda Calvin, Agricultural Economist, Economic Research Service, USDA.  

An example from lettuce shows the difficulties. Baby leaf lettuce, which is a relatively new crop, lends itself to mechanical harvest. Since all baby leaf lettuce plants are immature, they can be harvested in one pass through the field, and the variation in product size will be small. Without mechanization, baby leaf lettuce production might not have expanded as quickly as it did. On the other hand, iceberg lettuce for head lettuce sales is still hand harvested, despite decades of research on mechanical harvesters.  

Calvin’s ERS study on the U.S. produce industry and labor points out that even when a mechanical harvester is available, not all growers will choose to bring in the new technology, as farmers may be unwilling to invest in a technology until it has proven itself. And smaller farms may not be able to afford the upgrade; larger farms may likely have an easier time adopting new technologies because it is more economical for them per acre to swallow a large fixed mechanization cost.

“Also, many growers prefer manual harvesting because quality is generally better and yields are higher. The judgment and dexterity of experienced farmworkers are often difficult for a machine to mimic, particularly when crops do not mature evenly, and workers must determine what can be harvested during multiple passes through fields and orchards. When economical harvest machinery is available a grower may switch depending on an analysis of their own benefits and costs,” says Calvin. 

Interestingly, these labor challenges come at a time when the industry is facing worker declines in many other areas of agriculture. A Purdue study on employment opportunities for college grads in the food industry predicts a shortfall of graduates in the plant sciences, soil sciences and horticultural specialties in the next few years.

Legislation regarding immigration is unlikely to hit the House floor before October 2013.