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Labor Shortages in U.S. Agriculture

October 5, 2011

Several recent news reports have described the economic harm to the agricultural segment of the economy resulting from anti-immigration laws in Alabama and Georgia.

Many employers today use the H-2A program to hire foreign nationals on a temporary basis to harvest their crops. In order to bring a worker into the U.S. under the program, the Department of Labor must certify there are not sufficient U.S. workers who are able, willing, qualified, and available to do the temporary work. Farmworker advocacy organizations estimate that more than 50% of workers on farms and ranches in the U.S. lack authorized status, and “[d]eporting them all would decimate American agriculture.”

This morning’s New York Times profiles a farmer in Colorado who decided this year to reduce the number of H-2A workers he uses and instead hire more U.S. workers for the harvest. He assumed that at a rate of nearly $10.50 per hour in the current climate of high unemployment, he would be able to find U.S. workers to harvest his corn and onions.

“It didn’t take me six hours to realize I’d made a heck of a mistake,” Mr. Harold said, standing in his onion field on a recent afternoon as a crew of workers from Mexico cut the tops off yellow onions and bagged them.

Six hours was enough, between the 6 a.m. start time and noon lunch break, for the first wave of local workers to quit. Some simply never came back and gave no reason. Twenty-five of them said specifically, according to farm records, that the work was too hard. On the Harold farm, pickers walk the rows alongside a huge harvest vehicle called a mule train, plucking ears of corn and handing them up to workers on the mule who box them and lift the crates, each weighing 45 to 50 pounds.

“It is not an easy job,” said Kerry Mattics, 49, another H-2A farmer here in Olathe, who brought in only a third of his usual Mexican crew of 12 workers for his 50-acre fruit and vegetable farm, then struggled to make it through the season. “It’s outside, so if it’s wet, you’re wet, and if it’s hot you’re hot,” he said.

Still, Mr. Mattics said, he can’t help feeling that people have gotten soft.

“They wanted that $10.50 an hour without doing very much,” he said. “I know people with college degrees, working for the school system and only making 11 bucks.”

A mismatch between employers’ requirements and the skills and needs of the jobless — repeated across industries — has been a constant theme of this recessionary era. But here on the farm, mismatch can mean high anxiety.

The H-2A program, in particular, in trying to avoid displacing American citizens from jobs, strongly encourages farmers to hire locally if they can, with a requirement that they advertise in at least three states. That forces
participants to take huge risks in guessing where a moving target might land — how many locals, how many foreigners — often with an entire season’s revenue at stake. Survival, not civic virtue, drives the equation, they say.

“Farmers have to bear almost all the labor market risk because they must prove no one really was available, qualified or willing to work,” said Dawn D. Thilmany, a professor of agricultural economics at Colorado State University.
“But the only way to offer proof is to literally have a field left unharvested.”

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