Farmworker Farce

The shortage simply doesn’t exist

By Mark Krikorian on November 6, 2007

National Review Online, November 6, 2007

The Senate this week will debate a $238 billion farm bill, and there was the prospect that yet another amnesty for illegal aliens, this one for farm workers and their families, would be attached to it. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) was considering introducing the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits, and Security Act of 2007 (AgJOBS) as an amendment to the bill (it was also one section of last summer’s failed amnesty proposal).

The bill would put on a path to citizenship, 2 to 3 million farm workers and their families, though only after a three- to five-year period of indenture on American farms. It’s one of those “both stupid and evil” bipartisan deals, originally agreed to several years ago by both the farm worker advocates and the growers, and brokered by leftist attorney Rick Swartz.

The immediate prospects for its passage aren’t good, since both Sen. Tom Harkin (D., Iowa), chairman of the Agriculture Committee, and the White House are against adding AgJOBS to the farm bill — not because they’re against amnesty (Harkin has a grade of D from Americans for Better Immigration), but because it might hold up all the goodies they want to pass out. Or, in the polite formulation of the acting Agriculture Secretary, “The farm bill should be more limited in scope.”

Whatever chance the bill might have this week comes from the belief on the part of many lawmakers (and voters) in the claims of agribusiness lobbyists, about the pressing need for a continuous flow of foreign peasants to pick vegetables. The most sweeping claim was from lobbyist Sharon Hughes: “We are either going to have our food produced by foreign workers here in the United States, or the farming process will move to foreign countries.”

The lobbyists’ “crops are rotting in the fields” story line has been repeated often and with little to back it up. This is one of those stories into which reporters buy so wholeheartedly, that they find no reason to actually check it out — like church burnings, or “Jeningrad.” The New York Times, of course, is the gold standard for this sort of thing, though it’s quite widespread (here and here are two examples picked at random).

Since only two percent of Americans still work in agriculture, many of the rest of us fall for this baloney. The research in this area, however, paints a very different picture. In a new paper, published by my Center for Immigration Studies, agricultural economist Philip Martin of the University of California, Davis, finds “little evidence” to support claims of a labor shortage on America’s farms.

In a market economy, when something becomes scarce, you pay more for it. The average farm worker makes about half of what the average non-farm production worker makes, and real wages for farm workers have risen only about one-half of a percent per year, on average, since 2000. If there were a shortage wages would be rising faster. Moreover, farm worker wages have risen even more slowly in California and Florida, the states with the most fruit and vegetable production (the farm sector in which immigrant labor is concentrated).

And how much could farmers really believe their own crop-rot panic if they’re actually planting more and more of the very stuff that is supposed to be rotting. The production of fruits and vegetables is rising, with production of the very labor-intensive crops of strawberries and sweet cherries rising more than 20-percent in just the last five years. A real labor shortage would cause, among other things, a shift to less labor-intensive crops.

The falsity of the labor-shortage claims is also seen in the relatively slow progress of harvest mechanization. Much of the engineering is already done — there’s a lettuce harvester available that cuts the need for labor by 75-percent, while a robotic orange-picker is in the works that does the work of 10 men — around the clock.

But, as Julian Simon wrote in The Ultimate Resource, “Even after a discovery is made, there is a good chance that it will not be put into operation until there is need for it due to rising cost.” With farm labor kept cheap by lax immigration enforcement, why bother to invest in a lettuce harvester?

There’s even more industry scare-mongering around the issue of retail prices. Won’t fruit and vegetables become luxuries if they are picked by only legal workers? No. Just look at the government data on household expenditures. The average household spends $357 a year on fresh fruit and vegetables, of which the farmers receive $62, of which the farm workers receive maybe $21. If tighter immigration policies prompted farmers to raise wages 40-percent (as happened after the end of the “Bracero” Mexican farm worker program in the 1960s), and if all the extra cost were passed on, the total impact on the average household would be something on the order of $8.

That’s eight dollars. For the whole year. For the whole household.

Illegal-alien farm workers are hardworking young men who should be picking lettuce back in the old country, not here. America’s interest is in enforcing the immigration laws, so as to allow market forces to pull American agriculture fully into the 21st-century.

Mark Krikorian is Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies.