Summertime, and Crops Haven’t Rotted in the Fields

Published on July 21st, 2017

Certain pro-immigration narratives refuse to go away, no matter how often and effectively they’ve been rebutted. Top on the list of discredited stories is “the crops are rotting in the fields” which reappears every spring with monotonous regularity. A typical media angle stresses that if Congress doesn’t pass guest worker legislation, acres of produce will be plowed under.

Since President Trump’s election, however, an additional spin has been added to the agriculture industry’s plea for more workers. Growers and their lobby claim that the Trump administration’s commitment to deportation has frightened off illegal worker immigrants already here, and deterred would-be job seekers from crossing.

“Immigration Crackdown Expected to Increase Crops Unharvested Left Unharvested in California’s Fields” includes all the above scare language plus the tired reference to jobs Americans won’t do, and concludes with a disparaging remark about the lasting solution to illegal farm labor and most efficient picking method—mechanization: “Ironically, many California farmers desperate for labor have been forced to mechanize their operations as much as possible to compensate for a shortage of workers.” 

fruit market
Plenty of produce available at San Francisco’s Ferry Market

The reporter frames mechanization as an expensive inconvenience to growers when the greater societal cost is adding more low-skill illegal immigrants to the population, perhaps permanently since many don’t return when their visas expire.
Here’s two examples of how old hat and flat out wrong the crops rotting theme is. In 2006 (!), the New York Times published a story titled “Pickers are Few, and Growers Blame Congress,” which claimed, citing growers, that millions of pounds of pears had been lost because Congress couldn’t agree on a guest worker program.

Then, in 2008 (!), Senator Dianne Feinstein told the San Francisco Chronicle that the alleged ag worker shortage would result in multi-billion dollar losses for California’s agriculture industry and eventually mark its end. Feinstein, preposterously: “It's an emergency. If you can't get people to prune, to plant, to pick, to pack, you can't run a farm."

As a 20-year plus resident of California’s San Joaquin Valley, often called America’s Breadbasket, I traveled to farmers markets from Pomona, in Los Angeles County, north to Sacramento, and never, ever at any time did a grower tell me during season that he was out of pears, apples, cherries, etc. because he had to plow his crop under. And despite equally dire predictions that non-existent rotting crops would lead to huge price increases at the market, the reverse happened. According to the Department of Agriculture, in 2016, fresh fruit and vegetable prices declined from their 2015 levels.
Don’t expect crop rotting stories to go away any time soon. But if the media wants to restore its vanished credibility, it might ask growers to show it some actual rotted produce or to explain exactly why mechanization is such a bad idea. 

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