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The future of produce hinges on labor

ag workers

What will dictate the future of the produce industry?

Three things, according to Philip Martin of the University of California at Davis, perhaps the nation’s leading expert on farm labor: “Machines, migrant guest workers, and/or imports. Labor-saving mechanization replaces workers, mechanical aids make guest and US workers more productive, and imports can substitute for some domestic production,” he observes.

All of these variables center on the cost and availability of human labor.

Migrant guest workers form the backbone of the industry’s personnel, as they have for generations. “The US had a Bracero program between 1942 and 1964 that peaked in size in the mid-1950s, when 20 percent of US crop workers were Braceros,” Martin continues. Braceros (i.e., guest workers, from the Spanish for “strong arm” or “manual laborer”) were initially introduced to make up for labor shortages caused by the Second World War.

By the way, “bracero exclusion failed to raise wages or substantially raise employment for domestic workers in the sector. Employers appear to have instead adjusted to foreign-worker exclusion by changing production techniques where that was possible, and changing production levels where it was not,” notes one research study.

“After the Bracero program ended, farm labor costs jumped as the United Farm Workers won 40 percent wage increases in table grape contracts,” Martin adds. “A wave of labor-saving mechanization and agricultural restructuring followed, as oil companies and other conglomerates exited farming. Unauthorized Mexicans provided an ample supply of workers between the 1980s and the 2008-09 recession, and reliance on FLCs [farm labor contractors] rose.”

Over the past decade, farm employers have (despite complaints) relied more and more on the H-2A guestworker program. “H-2As remain concentrated in the southeastern states,” Martin notes, “but the H-2A program is expanding fastest in the Pacific Coast states of CA, OR, and WA, the three states with half of US crop workers, the highest AEWRs [adverse effect wage rates], and extensive state laws on farm workers.”

One provision of the H-2A program that remains unpopular among growers is the requirement to provide housing for workers. Martin points out: “Today, FLCs [farm labor contractors] account for almost half of H-2A job certifications, and many house guest workers in motels, using bunk beds for four workers per room. More apartment-style housing is being built that costs employers $25 or more per night in coastal areas.”

Elementary math explains why, in Martin’s words, “many farmers want Congress to allow them to pay a housing allowance of $1 to $2 per hour to H-2As rather than provide housing.” Even if you pay a worker an extra $2 an hour, that would amount to $16 for an eight-hour day, one third less than the present average cost of housing.

The other two factors mentioned by Martin are also explained by labor costs and availability: mechanization, to reduce the need for it; and imports from nations whose average wages are much lower than in the United States.

“The net effect of these changes is to require more investment for FVH [fruit, vegetable, and horticulture] production,” Martin concludes. “The question is where to invest:

  • “in machines and farming systems to replace and/or make workers more productive?
  • “housing for H-2A workers?
  • “production in lower-wage countries?

“The answer is to invest in some of each until technological breakthroughs and migration and trade policies come into focus.”

Admittedly, the produce industry faces heavy pressure from other factors, including climate change, urbanization, and water shortages. However it deals with these issues, the solution won’t be complete without solving the labor dilemma.

Industry organizations, such as the International Fresh Produce Association, are pressing the U.S. Senate to take action on immigration reform.

But they have been doing that for a long time now.

Richard Smoley, contributing editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published 12 books.