My initial plan when writing for this topic was to simply discuss the current state of farm labor in the U.S. Well, I quickly realized “simply” would not be the case, and that researching this topic quickly delves into the world of conflicting statistics, politics, and anecdotal evidence. So I’ll do my best to avoid any of that for this topic covering a segment of workers that make up less than 1 % of the total U.S. workforce, but whose importance in the economy heeds attention to a much larger share.
The evolution of agriculture in the U.S. has been quite dramatic and profound over the last century. This graph by the USDA demonstrates a broad overview of the steady decline of farms and their workers over this time. This has occurred due to a myriad of factors involving urbanization of the population following World War II driven by the need for workers in factories and manufacturing industries, and the increased efficiency of commercial production of crops via improvement and implementation of machinery, fertilizers, pesticides, and plant genetics. This also led to the consolidation and absorption of small fragmented family farms into larger, corporate entities.
Despite these improvements, there are still segments of agricultural production that have and will continue to rely very heavily on low wage (~$10/hr) farm laborers to produce labor intensive crops such as fruits, nuts, vegetables, and nursery production. Obviously, a large source of these farm laborers is drawn from unauthorized immigrants, which current USDA statistics put at 48% of the work force for agriculture. A recent USDA study found a direct correlation between the levels of these unauthorized workers, and farm output/export. Simply put, a decrease in unauthorized workers decreases the agricultural output/export, and an increase in such workers raises output/export.
This trend is once again magnified specifically with fruit, nut, and vegetable growers, due to their current workforce being comprised of 64% unauthorized workers, and new hires consisting of 94% such workers. Such a high percentage of workers being unauthorized for these sectors could cause strains on the production and economics of these crops in the near future, particularly with the recent decline the last few years in the number of unauthorized immigrants due to the U.S. economy, improving economic opportunities in Mexico, and increased emphasis by state and federal officials on border security. Other contributing factors lie in the nature of farm work, which is highly seasonal for these sectors and does not allow for year round employment, and pays wages that are on avg $1 lower than for those employed in the leisure and hospitality sectors.
This conversely creates an economic balancing act whereby increased demand in wages for laborers leads to increased mechanization by farmers in lieu of wage increases. A recent example of this is in the raisin industry, where increased labor costs from 2001-2009 has led to raisin growers now harvesting 45% of the harvest by mechanized means, as opposed to 1% before the transition. This mechanization, however, still leads to an increase in operating costs that can then potentially lead to fewer, larger producers who control a much more significant share of the market. Another possibility is the complete phasing out of an American producer by a foreign producer all together.
For an industry where 71% of its workers are foreign born, forward thinking will be required to meet future labor needs. Wage levels, farming techniques, immigration reform, worker visas, and a plethora of other variables will factor together in the formation of a solution. One such example of a current attempt at solving this is the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program, where foreign workers are brought in seasonally to temporarily work. This program currently only accounts for 5% of the total farm laborers, and this may be due to the highly arduous process by which farm based employers attain workers by this method. The program requires potential employers to prove to the U.S. Department of Labor that U.S. workers were first unsuccessfully solicited for the positions, and that any foreign workers that are attained must be provided housing and paid a state or federally determined wage (whichever is higher). Utilizing such a method for finding workers has the right intentions of mitigating exploitation of foreign workers that have been the criticisms of such past worker programs as the Bracero Program, but some amendments will likely need to be done to broaden the impact of the program and its ability to provide farm laborers while also being economically viable to the agricultural producers.
The industry that has most readily used the H-2A program is the citrus industry in Florida, where 71% of its workers are employed by this method. If other industries will follow the Florida citrus industry in this regard remains to be seen.
The future of agricultural production, and the workers who drive it, will be a complicated and difficult one. With farm laborers staying in the workforce for typically less than a decade, a constant supply of new laborers is required to compensate for this turnover. The current status quo for filling these needs suffices for now, but changes must be realized as the looming horizon approaches. Both the U.S. and global political and economical climates will greatly determine what proposed solutions, which may vary from adaptive machinery/cultural practices, trade agreements, immigration policies, and work programs, will need to be implemented to mitigate this issue.
Keith Kutac is TerViva’s Operations Manager and provides technical support and advice for customer plantings while also actively managing 150 acres of pongamia trees along the Texas Gulf Coast. While Keith was attaining his B.S. in Biology from Texas A&M University, he worked at both the Texas A&M and USDA pecan orchards learning management techniques that are now being practically applied towards pongamia.