Jun 14, 2012
ERS report confirms what we already know

Much of labor-intensive agriculture ended 2011 scrambling to find enough human hands to complete the harvest. As this article was being written in May, we were reading numerous accounts of actual or expected farm labor shortages in both the trade and popular media, from all over the United States.

A recurring question going into 2012, amid concerns that there may not be enough labor, has been, “What has changed to cause concern for shortages?” Perhaps a better question would be, “What has not changed in 2012?”

Although we may be continuing on a sluggish and maddeningly unpredictable economic recovery, there is little to suggest that agriculture’s old labor competitors, the construction and maintenance industries, have recovered sufficiently to be a main cause of tight agricultural labor supplies. The continued trend toward zero net migration from Mexico may be part of the cause. Our southern borders remain tighter than ever. I-9 audits continue to increase and continue to target agricultural employers. State laws and increased enforcement plans continue to be discussed or implemented, causing concern and disruption with employees and employers. Unexpected and unexplained failures of traditional migrant workers to show up when and where they usually do, and in their traditional numbers, have been observed all over the country. Add an early spring to these variables and we see a recipe for continued concern that labor may not be available in the quantity and timing growers need.

As I was completing this article, two things happened to remind me just how little our country understands the importance and complexity of domestic labor-intensive agriculture and the impact all these one-sided enforcement policies have on the overall economy and wellbeing of our nation.
First, I was treated to a lecture on the need for border security and “shipping every illegal” out of the country, preferably at their own expense. This was an uncomfortable, and packed, late-night flight sitting next to an otherwise normal person who seemed to echo the words of one Congressman from Iowa, telling me that he did not care if lettuce was $8 a head and apples $2 each, because he could do without them! He also explained to me that our energy problems, particularly electric supply shortages, were the direct result of too many uncounted illegal aliens “sucking up the U.S. energy supply.” There was more, but this person, who was an educated manager for a very large company, could not be reasoned with. When we move away from our world of agriculture, this is all too common – and people hold these ideas as if they were religious beliefs.

Secondly, USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) just released a major report outlining two labor supply scenarios and their potential impacts on domestic agriculture. The two scenarios are an increase of 158,000 legal foreign agricultural workers, versus “removal” of 5.8 million “unauthorized” workers from all segments of the economy. Guess what the results show? Of course, adding legal workers to labor-intensive agriculture increased output, exports and the overall U.S. economy, not just agriculture. Removing a majority of the current unauthorized U.S. workforce would reduce domestic food production, reduce exports, increase food prices and increase importation of food, while damaging the overall economy. Isn’t that what we have been trying to tell Congress and the regulatory agencies for years?

In the short term, you might be forced to deal with a scarce labor year. We know that some growers have shifted cropping patterns and reduced labor-intensive acres in favor of mechanized row crops this year. Many of you do not have this flexibility, and will do the best you can with what you have available.

Longer term, the ERS data will be useful, and all of your advocates and associations will use it. As individual voters, regardless of your party affiliations, you as growers must push your elected officials to act in your best interest. At some point, enough must be enough, and we must be willing to make it clear that we will not support candidates who refuse to address our needs again and again. We also carry the responsibility of not giving up on friends and family members, or even the person we meet on the airplane or social event, who do not, or will not, grasp just how important a willing, able and readily available labor supply is to American domestic food production and to our national economy.

The ERS study proves that the simple programs of removal, exclusion and enforcement bring disaster to domestic food production and damage the nation in the process. Although the ERS scenarios are based on immediate change, labor-intensive agriculture has been living with a gradual and additive program that is showing the same damaging results.

By Frank Gasperini, National Council of Agricultural Employers

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