U.S. Farm Labor and Immigration: Choosing Who Will Pick

Growing food is an act of faith: you plant your crops in the belief that months of careful tending – weeding and fertilizing and pest control – will eventually justify all the money and labor you’ve invested. If the weather cooperates, and there’s enough rain – but not too much – enough sunshine – but not too much – and the insects leave your crops alone, by the end of the growing season, you’ll have something to take to market – and something in your pocket when you come home; but only if you can find workers for the harvest.

Right now, that’s precisely the rub: stepped-up immigration enforcement is creating labor shortages on farms across the USA. Some farmers – especially small-scale growers – find it too complicated and expensive to hire legal immigrant laborers through the H2A visa program. In the past, they could always count on the availability of workers to harvest their crops, unconcerned about their immigration status; but, as the head of the Western Grower’s Association, Tom Nassif, told a Senate panel last week, “there are about 1.8 million people who perform hired farm work in the United States. Approximately 1.2 [million] or more of these people are not authorized to work here.” (See Testimony of Tom Nassif, President and CEO of Western Growers Association, before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and Border Security, 04.Oct.2011.) Of the approximately 600,000 who ARE authorized to work here, about 150,000 a year are foreign migrant workers brought here legally under the H2A visa program. (See U.S. Farmers Concerned About E-Verify, MurthyBlog, 13.Jun.2011.) Everybody knows this: the farm labor force, whether above board or under the table, is heavily dependent on foreign workers.

The recent Senate hearing brought this sharply into focus. The title says it all: “Hearing on America’s Agricultural Labor Crisis: Enacting a Practical Solution.” Despite a sagging economy and continued high rates of unemployment, U.S. farmers report difficulty in finding American workers to take hot, sweaty, dangerous jobs as field hands, working dawn-to-dusk in the blazing sun. Nassif reminded the Senate panel what happened last year when the United Farm Workers Union started a well-publicized campaign called “Take Our Jobs.” It was intended to test the claim that undocumented immigrant workers were preventing unemployed Americans from taking agricultural jobs; the program asked native-born Americans to apply for jobs picking fruits and vegetables:

“As of mid October [2010], which generally marked the end of the growing season and the campaign, 10,021 people had inquired about jobs in the fields, yet only nine people had taken jobs in the fields. Most of them quit after a few days. Some might be tempted to consider wage rates as an additional factor that might discourage unemployed American workers from seeking agricultural jobs, but the facts do not bear this out. According to a July 2011 USDA farm labor analysis, wages for field and livestock workers averaged $10.25 per hour. American workers do not seek nor stay in farm jobs, even today with unemployment hovering at 9.1 percent. The fact is the majority of farm jobs in this country will be filled by foreign workers.”

The unstated corollary is that these foreign workers largely will be undocumented. The farm labor pinch is especially acute in states like Georgia, where strict new laws require employers – farms included – to screen prospective employees through the E-Verify system, to prevent hiring unauthorized immigrant workers. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, this helped them out of a jam, I guess, but they used a little too much force: less than a month after Georgia Governor Nathan Deal signed SB 87 into law, the Georgia Department of Agriculture received the results of a labor survey conducted during the spring harvest season. Testifying at the recent Senate Immigration hearing, the Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture, Gary Black, said the farmers who responded to his survey – about 230 growers in all – had unmet needs for more than 11,000 agricultural workers. (See Testimony of Gary W. Black, Commissioner, GA Department of Agriculture, before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and Border Security, 04.Oct.2011.) This, after months of public debate and controversy as the bill moved through the Georgia state legislature. At least some of Georgia’s undocumented workers took the hint and left the state.

The effects of the Georgia law are still being felt. Another witness at the Senate hearing, Connie Horner, who raises organic blueberries on a small family farm in Georgia – said her family didn’t feel the brunt of HB 87 – but only because their frustration with the H2A program eventually led them to plant machine-harvestable berries that won’t require a large force of pickers. Others weren’t so lucky, she said:

“Much of the migrant farm labor supply skipped coming to Georgia out of fear of the new law. Commissioner Black is in a better position to go into the numbers on worker shortage and crop loss, but the situation was devastating, with vegetables, berries, and fruit left to rot. Farms felt the impact first, but so did community-based businesses that serve the farming and farm worker communities. It was a manmade disaster that threatens to repeat itself in more and more states unless Congress finally acts.”

(See Testimony of Connie Horner, President of Horner Farms, Inc., before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and Border Security, 04.Oct.2011.) According to Horner, even before the advent of HB 87, the economic recession did little to bring Americans into the agricultural workforce. In 2009, when a hailstorm destroyed part of their blueberry crop, Horner says she cancelled her H2A contracts on the advice of the Department of Labor:

“…who assured us that they could supply over 500 farm jobs due to the overwhelming number of Americans out of work. I was calling 3 branches of the DOL several times a week, begging them for workers. The Americans interested in working wanted only air-conditioned positions and refused to work outside. About 80% of our fruit rotted on the bushes. Once again, we were faced with a serious dilemma: where do we find a legal, reliable, experienced, productive workforce?”

Where indeed? The ag labor shortage is not just a Georgia or Arizona phenomenon. The New York Times ran a story similar to Connie Horner’s, about a Colorado farmer’s frantic search for legally-employable agricultural workers to harvest his 1,000 acres of corn and onions. (See Hiring Locally for Farm Work Is No Cure-All, by Kirk Johnson, New York Times, 05.Oct.2011.) Colorado farmer John Harold cut back on his H2A workforce, expecting to find unemployed Americans to fill the breach, only to discover they didn’t want to do the work; according to the Times, some quit before lunch, and twenty-five American workers said they quit because the work was too hard.

The article prompted some lively discussion – and not a little soul-searching – in a New York Times forum a few days later, entitled, What Happened to the American Work Ethic? Barbara Dafoe-Whitehead of the Templeton Center for Thrift and Generosity at the Institute for American Values opined that if Americans won’t take farm jobs, it’s not because they are lazy, but because they are “softer.” (See Not Lazier, but Softer, by Barbara Dafoe-Whitehead, in What Happened to the American Work Ethic?, New York Times, Room for Debate, 09.Oct.2011.)

“America’s work ethic has not changed for the worse. We still work longer hours, with less time off for vacations, sick days, or family leave than workers in other advanced nations. What has changed is the kind of work we do. We aren’t getting lazier but we are getting softer. More of us spend our workdays sitting behind desks or counters, exercising our minds and our fine motor skills but scarcely moving a large muscle group.”

Whatever the reasons for this change, it should be amply clear by now that American workers are not going to do agricultural jobs left behind when undocumented workers are forced to leave, whether by state laws or federal enforcement. The ag labor crunch is unlikely to improve in the near future, especially if legislation currently pending in the House of Representatives – mandating universal E-Verify participation – should become law. At some point, Congress will need to face reality, and provide a more robust and user-friendly H2A system, one that can supply enough legally-authorized foreign agricultural workers to get the job done, without forcing farmers to resort to undocumented laborers. This is a no-brainer.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.