Caution: Watch for Farmers' Fibs on "Labor Shortages"

By David North on January 9, 2012

I was reminded by an article in a recent Immigration Daily about the claims that farmers make when the wages they offer do not attract the workers they say they need.

The item was headed "Bringing In the Peaches" and it related to an earlier news article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in which farmers complained about Georgia's new state immigration law, and how it had apparently impacted its labor force.

The total "losses" according to these articles were $74.9 million in peaches and six other major crops. I put the word losses in quotation marks for several good reasons. It is useful to recall that when discussing any imbalance between labor demand and supply, the farmers are always playing with a deck they have stacked, in the following ways:

Who counts the crop? The farmers are responsible for the basic math of the harvest and they can estimate any way they want, and it is highly unlikely that they will be challenged.

Who defines "losses?" The farmers do.

You can legitimately call it a $10 million loss if the farmers invested, say, $60 million in the crop and received $50 for their produce. You could, with a little less honesty, say that you expected the harvest to be worth $60 million, but you got only $50 million, and then not discuss how much was invested in the crop.

Or you could define what you invested in such a way as to inflate the cost numbers. You could, for instance, say that the value of an acre of land was $400 an acre a year (a made- up number) when it really was $200 an acre a year – and who would know the difference?

Who explains why the losses occurred? The farmers do.

When I was Assistant to the U.S. Secretary of Labor for Farm Labor decades ago and the LBJ administration was dismantling the scandal-ridden Bracero program, which brought Mexican nationals to the U.S. as nonimmigrant workers every year, the secretary and I received more than our share of rotten produce in the mail – especially cucumbers – and the sad shape of the stuff was always explained as the result of a government-inflicted labor shortage.

There are many reasons why a crop can spoil that have nothing to do with workers. The crop may be so harmed by droughts or pests that the farmer decides not to harvest it, on the grounds that he will lose money – and then put the blame for the rotting produce on the lack of workers.

Or, and we ran into this I think with lemons in the 60s, some farms produced more fruit than they could sell into a government-protected market, meaning that they had to sell the rest of the lemons on the free market, for very little. The farmers then made a rational decision not to harvest a percentage of their fruit, and blamed the Labor Department for the non-harvest.

Who asks the farmers about any of these things? Nobody. There may be a couple of people out there – such as Philip Martin, Professor of Economics at UC/Davis – who understand all these ruses, but everyone else who can be quoted by journalists belongs to Corporate Agriculture, or to one of its affiliates. The people who actually do the farm work are not organized, do not have publicists, and are not in the phone book, so their side of the story is rarely told.

The most basic part of the labor supply/demand equation is the imbalance between the wage levels that growers have traditionally paid, and the slightly higher levels that would attract the workers they need. This is never discussed.

Another deliberately forgotten topic is the question of housing. The workers need to have some shelter while they are on the scene, and the farms are often distant from any adequate housing. Farmers, spoiled by migrant crews that often sleep in tents or in their cars by the side of the road or the irrigation ditches, do not want to invest in the housing that the government requires in the H-2A program. If they have any housing at all it is barracks for single workers, not accommodations for families.

The Immigration Daily article quoted the farmers as saying "the federal guest worker program was so cumbersome, complex and slow that it was not usable . . . " The farmers rarely mention their opposition to the minimal wage and housing requirements of that program.

One of the relative pleasures of the dispute over the high-tech H-1B program is that the Americans who have been hurt by the program may be disorganized but they are at least college graduates and occasionally go to court and to the newspapers with their grievances, so there is some balance to the dialogue.

That balance simply does not exist when Corporate Agriculture objects to the enforcement of the immigration law, as it is doing in Georgia, or when it makes its pitch for a "streamlined" foreign farm worker program.

The media always presents – unchallenged – the numbers, the concepts, and the arguments of the growers. No one asks why a significant part of the American economy, labor-intensive agriculture, should be given a free pass for their extensive employment of illegal workers.