Ag Labor Gap May Be Unavoidable As Availability and Automation Draw Closer Together
An overwhelmingly conservative industry like produce and agriculture in general has found itself on a precarious moral perch in recent years. No one wants to break the law. But no one wants to see crops rot in the field for lack of labor either.
The industry and society at-large have turned a blind eye to the practice of hiring illegal immigrants to do the jobs that Americans simply will not do. For at least the last 30 years most of our domestic crops have been tended and harvested by foreign workers, working in this country either under the cumbersome – but legal – H2-A visa program or as illegal immigrant labor.
Now the same conservative industry that overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump in his bid for the presidency is beginning to wonder if they put a friend or foe in The White House?
It’s a double-edged sword. Trump’s economic policies bode well for agriculture and all industries. But his anti-immigrant stance threatens the not-so-secret mechanism that literally drives the produce industry.
An already bad situation will no doubt get worse, according to Dr. Stephen Devadoss of the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics at Texas Tech University University and Dr. Jeff Luckstead of the Department of Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness at the University of Arkansas, who presented a paper on the topic “Effects of U.S. Policies on Illegal Immigration” at this week’s 2017 Agricultural & Applied Economics Association Annual Meeting in Chicago.
11 Million Illegal Workers And ‘A Wall Won’t Help Farmers’
The Pew Research Center estimates there were 11.3 million undocumented workers in the U.S. in 2015, and people in the agriculture industry are particularly concerned about how new legislation will impact the potential labor pool.
“There is a huge shortage of labor and tightening border control and increasing deportation is making it harder for vegetable and fruit growers to find workers,” Devadoss says. “Building a wall won’t help farmers.”
There is no speculation in Devadoss’ work. His conclusions are all evidence-based. And his conclusions point to the probability of an agricultural labor gap as the available work force shrinks while automation races to provide solutions for specialty crops in the same way it has for commodity agriculture.
So what will Trump’s immigration policies to do the labor pool short- and long-term?
“What we found is there will be a negative effect because these policies don’t provide any solutions to what farmers are currently facing,” Devadoss says. “There is already a labor shortfall and consequently farmers can’t do basic operations, including harvesting.”
Some parts of the country have watched helplessly over the last decade while as much as 20 percent of fruit and vegetable crops has gone unharvested. In Georgia, famously, the economy took a $500 million hit in 2011 as crops rotted in the field with no one to pick them when the state adopted stringent anti-immigrant legislation (that it shortly abandoned in the wake of the agricultural disaster).
Devadoss says farmers are already having a tough enough time harvesting crops; the Trump crackdown on illegal immigration is “bad news for farmers.” If current policies remain in motion, the industry can expect an overall crop reduction of 5%-6%, he says.
On the surface that may not sound like much. But according to USDA, the overall value of crop production in 2017 is projected to be $176.8 billion. In recent years, specialty crops have grown to account for 30%-40% of the total value of U.S. crops. Meaning a harvest reduction of 5%-6% would cost fruit and vegetable growers between $3 billion and $4 billion annually.
Illegal Border Crossings Are Down 61% Since January
Devadoss told SPW in a recent exclusive interview that the Trump administration from February to May deported illegal immigrants at a much higher rate than the previous administration.
Syracuse University research shows a backlog of 610,000 illegal immigration cases on U.S. court dockets. The Trump administration is seeking to expedite at least a portion of those. And the administration has broadly hinted it would like to deport more illegal immigrants than any previous administration.
“Since the day of my election, we’ve already cut illegal immigration at the southern border by 61 percent, think of that, 61 percent, and we haven’t started,” Trump said at a March 20 rally in Kentucky, a statement political watchdog organization PolitiFact labeled “mostly true”.
Yet when it comes to specialty crop agricultural labor programs, “There is no discussion whatsoever, nothing has been talked about, including the H2-A program – they’re more into building a wall,” Devadoss says. “Our findings clearly suggest that we need to really streamline the visa program so it won’t be a cumbersome deal for farmers to find these workers. But unless the [industry] can take it upon themselves to find a solution, the situation is going to be very, very difficult for farmers.”
Administration Is ‘Totally Out Of Touch With Reality’
While officials are “wasting time and money” on a wall, the most immediately impactful and “best solution is to make the guest worker program more accessible and fixing the program so farmers can find workers.”
Devadoss is not at all certain that will happen. “This administration is totally out of touch with reality,” he says.
There has actually been reverse migration of Mexican nationals back to their home country from America in recent years. There are still illegal immigrants coming into America via Mexico, most of them from Central and South America – but a wall is not going to stop them.
“You are building a wall for 200 miles, that’s not easy — I’m from Texas,” Devadoss reminds. It’s a simple matter “to climb over or dig a tunnel underneath and come through. [And illegal immigrants] from Asia come in planes.”
Devadoss says the idea of a wall is pure posturing. In reality, there are more significant issues than deportation of immigrants facing the agriculture industry long-range. Most new immigrants, legal or not, have no desire to work in agriculture. Those who do “stick around maybe three years. Most of them would rather have other work than work on the farm.”
Now the U.S. is seeing “some farms and companies move down south to Mexico and buy land there and export the products back to the U.S.” Meaning Mexican nationals have opportunities at home without considering a trip across the border to find work. “The Mexican economy is not good but it is improving,” Devadoss says. “People are getting educations and moving to big cities and trying to find work there – do they want to work 12 hours a day for minimum wage [on U.S. farms]?”
Mexico Will ‘Whittle Away’ At Domestic Markets
In a worse-gets-worse scenario, the more agricultural product imported into the U.S. in the short-term, the more that will be imported long-term. Further governmental dallying will give Mexican growers a chance to “whittle away at existing markets,” Devadoss says.
“They [the administration] do not have a very clear picture of the shortfalls in many areas where fruits and vegetable are grown, particularly in the West and Florida. They do not have first-hand experience with these operations. There’s a big gap in what farmers are facing and what the Trump administration is coming through with for policies.”
In part that’s because the actual numbers of people employed in agriculture are small by Washington standards. But Devadoss is quick to note that while ag laborers, especially illegal immigrants, represent “a tiny portion of the total working population, they have a very big impact.”
The only way to solve the problem short-term is to improve the guest worker program.
In the long run, automation and mechanization will provide the answers for agricultural labor woes. But Devadoss doubts that robotics will be able to offer a solution without some kind of labor gap in the interim.
An already short labor force and the government’s official stance on immigration in combination are “setting up for a crisis. It’s a very difficult time for farmers. Yes we are heading for a gap – automation is not going to come through [in time], it’s going to take several years, not next month, and this problem is going to persist.”
Devadoss does offer a solution of sorts.
Speak Up — And Do It Now
“The growers need to form an organization and approach the current administration” as a whole. While United Fresh represents the industry in DC, more voices are needed to let Washington know that current policies are “not in the interest of labor-intensive agriculture.”
More likely, Devadoss expects continued frustration for farmers. “Very clearly nothing is going to be solved, farmers are going to be left with the same labor problems, and the best they can do is minimize reliance on workers and focus more on automation,” he says. “If they don’t do that, the next five to 10 years will bring the same problems we’ve seen for the past 12-15 years.”
As labor shortages continue to accrue, reports of crop losses are becoming more and more common.
“Particularly in the West there are reports that 5% to 20% of the crops are not harvested. It’s a really big loss to these farmers. If you reach 30% loss, I don’t know if you can recover from that for next year.”