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The Race in the Fields: Imports, Machines, and Migrants

December 21, 2017

The slowdown in unauthorized Mexico-US migration has set off a race in US fields between rising imports, more machines, and foreign guest workers. Trade policy, including NAFTA re-negotiations, and immigration policy, including more enforcement and new or revised guest worker programs, will determine which strategy dominates.

The fewer and larger farms that produce most US fruits, vegetables, and horticultural crops such as nursery plants depend on hired workers. About 70 percent of the hired workers on crop farms were born in Mexico, and 70 percent of these Mexican-born workers are unauthorized, so half of crop workers are working in the US illegally. California has a higher share of unauthorized workers because more of its workers were born in Mexico, 90 percent versus less than 70 percent in other states.

Unauthorized newcomers, who are Mexican-born workers in the US less than a year, have been the flexible fresh blood of the farm work force. Their share of crop workers peaked at a quarter in 2000, and today they are one to two percent of workers.

Farmers are responding to fewer newcomers with 4-S strategies: satisfy current workers to retain them, stretch them with mechanical aids that increase their productivity, substitute machines for workers, and supplement current workers with H-2A guest workers.

Seasonal farm work is generally a decade-long job rather than a lifetime career. Training first-level supervisors to reduce favoritism and harassment, offering bonuses to encourage workers to stay through the season, and offering other benefits can help to satisfy current workers and keep them in farm work longer.

Stretching farm workers involves management changes and mechanical aids that increase productivity. Dwarf trees mean fewer ladders and faster picking, reducing the need to fill 50 to 60 pound bags of apples and oranges from tall ladders. Slow-moving conveyor belts that move ahead of workers in the fields reduce the need to carry harvested produce, allowing workers to harvest faster and making jobs more attractive to older workers and women.

Substitution is replacing workers with machines. Fresh fruits and vegetables are fragile, and human hands are gentler than mechanical fingers on grapes or peaches. Rising minimum wages in many states, fewer flexible newcomers, and advances in mechanization have encouraged many farmers to invest in machines, which are doing more planting and pruning and are improving rapidly to harvest blueberries, peaches, and leaf lettuces.

The fourth option is recruiting guest workers under the federal H-2A program that admits an unlimited number of foreign farm workers to fill seasonal jobs. Receiving permission to hire H-2A guest workers requires farmers to try and fail to recruit US workers, provide free housing, and pay an Adverse Effect Wage Rate that averages $12 an hour. The number of farm jobs certified to be filled by H-2A workers tripled to over the past decade to 200,000 in FY17 and may surpass the peak number of Braceros, about 450,000, by 2025. Over 90 percent of H-2A guest workers are from Mexico.

Half of fruit (including the most popular bananas) and a quarter of vegetables available to Americans are imported, and there is rapid growth in imports of everything from avocadoes to raspberries. Mexico is the major source of fresh fruit and vegetable imports, supplying half of the imported fresh fruit and three-fourths of the fresh vegetables. Many of the fruits and vegetables imported from Mexico are produced on farms that involve partnerships between US and Mexican growers and shippers.

Policy will help to determine the winner of the race in the fields. The US has an overall agricultural trade surplus, but a deficit in agricultural trade with Mexico. The Trump Administration aims to reduce the trade deficit with Mexico in NAFTA renegotiations, which could slow the integration of the North American produce industry that provides year-round supplies of fruits and vegetables.

Agriculture has been at farm labor crossroads many times, asking who will pick the crops after the exclusion of the Chinese in the 1880s and the termination of the Bracero program in the 1960s. Today’s race in the fields will determine whether Americans will consume more imported produce or whether fruits and vegetables will continue to be grown in the US and picked by machines or guest workers.

A longer version of this blog post is available here.