By Joe Guzzardi
August 14, 2017
The agriculture industry’s decades-old myth which it has so fervently promoted is that without cheap stoop labor, crops will “rot in the field.” Since the failed bracero program ended more than 50 years ago, the ag lobby has insisted that their salvation lay in temporary guest worker legislation that would import an unending stream of field hands. Ten years ago, California Senator Dianne Feinstein, who knows better, said during her push for guest worker legislation that the state faced “an emergency” if illegal immigrants couldn’t be found “to prune, to plant, to pick, to pack.” But the fable may finally have run its course.
Summer 2017 is ending, and once again consumers have had the usual wide variety of fruits and vegetables to choose from. Farmers’ markets from coast-to-coast teem with product. And this abundance despite President Trump’s vow to enforce immigration laws: fewer migrants are coming north, and some of those already here are self-deporting. Yet growers have survived the predicted, but nonexistent labor crunch.
The Los Angeles Times broke a story last month that chronicled ag-tech’s progress in California’s $47 billion farming industry. Driscoll’s, a family-owned, privately held company headquartered in Watsonville and the world’s leading berry grower, is moving its crops to table-top troughs which makes picking easier for man and machine. The transition began a decade ago in Australia and Europe, but has been slow to catch on in the U.S. mainly because of stoop labor’s ready availability.
Two experts, the University of California Davis’ Philip Martin and Michael Teitelbaum, an Oxford University scholar and Harvard Law School Senior Labor and Worklife Program researcher, have written extensively about the flawed concepts behind guest labor. Namely, workers often don’t go home, and eventually their families join then or they start new families stateside, and create a continuously growing welfare-dependent class. Moreover, with cheap labor easily available, growers had little incentive to pursue alternatives like automation.
Even if growers lack the capital to invest in mechanization, some have shifted to more employee-friendly policies like providing health care, giving bonuses, and improving working conditions – hydraulic lifts that replace ladders, and conveyor belts that eliminate carrying crates.
Despite years of scare stories about an imminent ag crisis, the H-2A visa has long been available to growers that would allow them to bring in an unlimited number of foreign-born ag workers. Repeat for emphasis: unlimited, no cap. Since the Department of Labor authorizes H -2A visas, the process involves paperwork that employers claim is too cumbersome, a weak attempt to defend continued reliance on illegal immigrant pickers.
As for the companion to the “rotting” argument that paying higher wages to willing Americans or legal immigrant field hands translates into higher consumer costs, that too has been repeatedly debunked. A new Iowa State University study concluded that entirely eliminating the illegal workforce would raise farm wages substantially – by 30 percent in the short term and 15 percent in the long term – but would have little effect on consumer cost increases, a 6 percent boost in the near term, and a 3 percent hike in the long term.
If asked to choose between paying pennies more for a pound of cherries and subsidizing illegal immigration so that the ag industry could reap greater profits, consumers would be near-unanimous – either pay Americans more or join the 21st century and mechanize. The historic, tried and true solution to filling labor shortages is to pay more, not hire illegal immigrants or issue more visas.