Study: Lack of CIR Brings Ag Labor Shortage, Uncertainty on U.S. Farms

There are so many compelling reasons for passing comprehensive immigration reform (CIR), it’s hard to fathom why this has yet to be resolved. One of the most pressing arguments in favor of CIR should be relevant to everyone, because we all have to eat, and a vast proportion of our daily sustenance is planted, tended, and harvested by immigrant workers. The problem? These workers are in short supply right now, due to state-level immigration restrictions, and bottlenecks in our federal system.

That’s the take-home message from a recent study from the Partnership for a New American Economy (PNAE) and the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform: it found that, despite rising U.S. demand for fresh fruits and vegetables, and newfound interest in buying local, “America’s broken immigration system has made it particularly difficult for U.S. growers to find the labor they need to harvest their crops and expand production – a reality that has come at a major cost to the U.S. economy and American job creation.” [See No Longer Home Grown, by Stephen Bronars, Ph.D., and Angela Marek Zeitlin, Partnership for a New American Economy and the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, 18.Mar.2014.]

Among the findings:

  • We’re growing less of our own produce in the United States, and relying more heavily on imports; from 1998 to 2012, American purchases of imported produce rose sharply, with the share of imports climbing from 14.5 to 25.8 percent for fresh fruit, and from 17.1 to 31.2 percent for fresh vegetables.
  • A shortage of agricultural labor is a key reason American farmers have been losing market share to imports: it’s made them unable to expand production to meet domestic demand. Had they maintained their market share from the 1998-2000 period, the study finds, it would have resulted in “an estimated $4.9 billion in additional farming income and 89,300 more jobs in 2012 alone.”
  • Free trade agreements (FTAs) and the rise of global agricultural markets only bear some of the responsibility for this decline. “Our research found that the challenges farmers had finding sufficient labor to harvest crops and expand production played an almost equivalent role [to international trade and FTAs] – accounting for a full 27 percent of the recent decline.”
  • “Labor alone can explain as much as $3.3 billion in missed GDP growth in 2012. It also accounts for $1.3 billion in farm income that wasn’t realized that year.”

The study takes pains to put a human face on the raw numbers, recounting the plight of several farmers who have been forced to cut back on the amount of acreage they plant, simply because they can’t afford the risk of not having enough labor when harvest time rolls around.

As we’ve noted before, a significant proportion of U.S. agricultural labor is done by immigrants, many of them undocumented – 53 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, although the study notes that “private estimates exceed 70 percent.” The answer? Fix the H2A program, to make it faster, less burdensome, and a more reliable source of farm labor, the study argues.

Until Congress gets around to passing CIR in some form, this problem is not going to go away. The choice is simple. As Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, put it: “Either we import our labor or we import our food.” [See Farm Bureau Study Warns Against Enforcement-Heavy Immigration Reform, MurthyBlog, 24.Feb.2014.] For the sake of our farmers, one hopes Congress will act on this knowledge – ideally, before election season kicks in.

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