Friday, November 4, 2011

Farmville (Part V): Labor

Greetings from the farm!

Since the harvest season has ended and the winter months are upon us, there is not much to do on the ranch except wait for our trees to be trimmed. Why are we waiting? Simple. There is not enough labor to trim the trees. Therefore, for now, all we can do is wait for workers. During our peach harvest, documented here, we experienced a lack of labor. Since my town is full of farms and ranches, we were all harvesting during the same time. It seemed all of us were scrambling to find workers and waiting around for crews to come harvest the crop. The labor shortage pushed back our harvest date multiple times. This was very stressful and caused many headaches because peaches are especially perishable and the longer we took to harvest, the more likely we were to lose crops to rotting. This labor shortage is not limited to my hometown; other farmers in California also feel it.

Dan Firorio, a farmer in the Central Valley, estimates that on his 100-acre pepper farm, he lost nearly 700 tons of peppers due to rotting because of a labor shortage. Stephen Forich, another farmer from the Central Valley, noted that last year he was able to hire plenty of workers. However, this year he had to use three labor contractors just to meet half of his labor needs.

This labor shortage is not just a California problem. A recent University of Georgia report found this year alone, Georgia will have a projected loss of $391 million in the agricultural sector due to crop rot from a labor shortage. Similarly, Alabama is experiencing extreme economic losses in the millions due to labor shortages.

So why is there a labor shortage? The labor shortage directly correlates to the 400,000 undocumented immigrants deported by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement so far this year. According to Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, this is a record high in the agency's history.

Additionally, Georgia and Alabama have both enacted anti-immigration laws. In Alabama, the new immigration law allows local police to ask for immigration papers during routing traffic stops. It also requires schools to learn the immigration status of children at school registration time. As a result of this law, an estimated 185,000 Hispanics have fled the state.

This fear of deportation is also in my hometown. Our worker, Marta, told me about ICE officers patrolling outside the grocery store and a school known to have a large immigrant population. Out of fear, parents have pulled 50-60 students from the local schools.

Washington has had such a massive labor shortage that the farmers used unconventional means to harvest the crops. 72% of the state's harvesting is done by undocumented workers. This year farmers were not able to find enough workers to harvest the apples, even with growers advertising jobs with of $120-$150 a day. Governor Chris Gregoire sent prison inmates to help with the harvest. She estimates apple farmers need another 3,000-4,000 spare workers to help harvest the apples before the season's first major frost. Having prisoners harvest crops is not a good long-term fix to the labor shortage. The state receives $22 dollars an hour per prisoner. Out of the salary, a prisoner must pay logistical costs, child support, taxes, crime victim compensation, and incarceration costs. After these costs, the prisoner makes between one to two dollars an hour. Many have called this borderline slavery, and since slavery is obviously bad, this is not a good solution.

This past weekend, while waiting around for labor to come and trim out trees, I asked my farmer dad what his solutions were to help fix the labor shortage. He suggested a bracero program, similar to the one in the 1940's and 1960's, as a feasible option to keep labor around. The original Bracero program temporary allowed contract laborers from Mexico to work in the U.S. A similar program to the original would allow workers to perform agricultural labor without fears of deportation. The original program had many problems with workers cheated out of wages. If such a program were to be revived, it would need to have in place a support system for the workers put in place. Currently, the H-2A Agricultural Guest Worker Program in place.

I asked my dad why he did not utilize the guest worker program. He said he and his farming friends find the requirements and red tape outweighed the programs benefits. For example, they did not like the 50% rule, which requires farmers to replace an H-2A visa-holder with any qualified US worker willing to do the same job at the same rate, if that person presents themselves within the first 50% of the contract holder's period. It does not matter if this new worker is unable to finish the harvest. My dad's farming friends and he also felt the visa program put a lot of added work on the farmers. This included, providing free housing to the visa holders, transportation from and back to the country of origin, and low cost meals. This visa program would make sense for a mega farmer with thousands of acres, where the workers could stay with the farmer for the entire harvest. However, for small to mid-sized farms, it is not economical to take on workers for an entire season. So while the H-2A program is a start, it is not a feasible solution to the agriculture labor shortages in all sectors.

What are your suggestions to deal with the labor shortage?


KB said...

The United States needs to change its immigration laws or their enforcement if it wants to ensure our farmers have enough labor. It seems as though Americans are not willing to do farm work, so if we want vegetables and fruits in our grocery stores, the laws need to change.

Any sort of bracero program would need to have many modifications to ensure that farm owners do not take advantage of undocumented workers who do not participate in a new program. It would probably be best not to have a formal agreement with Mexico, as that seemed to cause many problems.

Maybe for those who come to the United States to work in agriculture, the United States could grant them a form of legal status for the term of their employment (similar to a visa and with safeguards in case of an injury or illness) and provide a much easier path to legal permanent residence from there. However, lawmakers will have to overcome anti-immigration proponents who seem not to care about the labor shortage and the effects it has on American farmers and food suppliers.

ScottA. said...

It will be interesting to see what increases in cost will result because of the mass deportations this year. Granted many American crops are over produced, but with so many tons of fruits and vegetables being lost some higher costs will be seen in the market.

One thing that caught my attention was how Washington state is being paid 22 dollars an hour for prisoner labor. It would be interesting to compare that with how much an illegal laborer was being paid, much less I'd wager. How much of a pinch will apple buyers feel this year as the costs of prison labor are passed on to the consumer.

Wages are one major issue that any form of legalization will have to address. In order to give those workers a living wage, someone will have to pay for the increase cost. That someone is usually the consumer. I worry about the uproar that will occur because of rising prices and the negative impact it may have on farm labor reform.

KevinN said...

It was interesting to read that the push-back to using inmates to help with Washington's apple crop centered on the amount they were actually being paid. I toured the Nevada State Prison a few years ago and they have a bustling prison industries section. I don't recall the exact amount that the inmates working in the license plate factory or print shop were being paid, but it was certainly less than a few dollars an hour. None of them seemed to have any complaints and most voiced their appreciation of having something to do. None were forced to work in the prison industries and many were happy that they were earning a little bit of spending money for the commissary. It seems that the prison population might be a natural place to look to replace people in low-wage jobs. However, as Scott pointed out, there might be some significant problems. If it actually costs $22 an hour to perform the same work that was previously being done at a fraction of that cost, prices are bound to skyrocket across the board. And with so few people willing to step up and take these types of jobs, there might not be any other real option. It seems that the recent state-wide crackdowns on illegal immigration are going to force some sort of reform sooner rather than later if we want to avoid the uncomfortable questions brought up by using prison labor.

princesspeach said...

ScottA, at least for my hometown it is not a wage issue. Just because an immigrant might be undocumented does not mean they are paid. The vast majority of farmers use a contractor to hire out labor. This contractor is in charge of bringing in the labor and then sending the appropriate documents into the government. These include the taxes, the insurance for each worker, etc. Therefore a farmer could have undocumented workers on his ranch and not even know. You are suggesting a very good solution however. Perhaps increasing wages for farm labor will attract more workers out to the ranch, therefore ending the labor shortage. The increase in wages will be a cost put on the consumer, and like you, I don’t know if American consumers will be willing to pay extra for the fruit. If prices increase, I forsee American farmers getting more squeezed out of the American market because Latin American countries are able to produce the fruit and vegetables much cheaper than we are.

KevinN. I believe the issue with farm labor is that it is much more strenuous. In a prior blog post entitled “Peach Fuzz,” I describe the typical harvest day. We are in the orchard at 5:30 and work until 1. It is hot, tiring, and physically demanding work. Therefore, to have to do this work and then only be paid one dollar an hour is unreasonable. The wages are so high because of the logistical costs of transporting the prisoners and the security of the prisoners.

oceguera said...

I agree that the bracero program was very problematic, however, the idea of being able to come in to work and go back home to your family was ideal. Yet, in order to develop a program that recognizes the high demand for foreign labor we should be able to investigate why there is a need for foreign labor when there is an outcry from citizens in the United States that they need jobs? Also, if another bracero like program should be drafted up, there should be a critical look to the history of this program and see how it affected people in the United States and how it affected communities in Mexico. Last point, I think that the economic conditions have dramatically changed since the 1st bracero program and Mexico and other developing countries are not in the most ideal state to build a home in (thanks to economic structural adjustment programs and global free trade agreements).

JWHS said...

All of you make some really good points. As we said in class a few weeks ago, we've grown really accustomed to cheap food here. And as a poster above me mentioned, prices of food could go up.

But then, keep in mind many areas of the country that already pay of lot of money for food or have low access to fresh food--like the food deserts across the South. The impact in these areas of even more food could be much more severe than $2 /lb for an apple.