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Covid-19: Implications for Farm Workers

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June 24, 2020

The Covid-19 virus that shut down large parts of the world and US economy in spring 2020 had both short- and long-term effects on farm workers. Farm and other food system workers were deemed essential and expected to continue to work during the pandemic. Foreign farm workers were also considered essential, and special arrangements were made to ensure that H-2A guest workers could obtain work visas and enter the US despite closed borders.

In the short term, the shared goal of governments, employers, and employees is to keep farm and food system workers safe. This means more protective personal equipment, including face masks and gloves, some of which were already required for food safety. Some farmers kept crews of 15 to 20 workers isolated from one another at work and in living quarters so that, in the event of an outbreak, only one group is affected.

Most farm workers are not housed on the farm where they work. Some farm employers are performing temperature checks as workers report to work, educating workers about how to prevent the spread of the virus, and adding washing stations and enforcing physical distancing while working and on breaks. Farm workers could contract the virus away from work and infect co-workers, and Covid-19 could spread rapidly in often crowded farm worker housing.

The Covid-19 pandemic raises several questions. First, will jobless local workers fill seasonal farm jobs? Most food system employment is in restaurants, many of which closed and laid off workers. With US unemployment rates of 13-14 percent just as farm worker employment approaches its summer 2020 peak, how many jobless workers are seeking to fill seasonal farm jobs?

Few local workers applied for or stayed with farm work in spring 2020. There were many reasons, including unemployment insurance benefits that often exceed farm worker earnings, the fact that most jobless food system workers are in cities and lack housing and contacts with employers in agricultural areas, and the fact that, for most nonfarm workers, seasonal farm work would be a one-season job rather than a career. Farm employers who have become accustomed to experienced and hard-working unauthorized workers and guest workers often find local workers deficient.

Covid-19 is likely to raise farm labor costs and accelerate three major trends: labor-saving mechanization, more H-2A guest workers, and more imports of labor-intensive commodities. Mechanizing hand tasks on farms requires a systems perspective. Instead of substituting a machine for hand workers, mechanization often require different planting and pruning systems as well as new packing and processing methods. Individual farmers can find it hard to mechanize in isolation but, if seed companies and nurseries, equipment manufacturers, and food processors and retailers agree that mechanization is inevitable, supply-chain cooperation can speed up labor-saving mechanization.

Second, growers can continue to rely on hand labor by employing more guest workers. The H-2A program allows US farmers who anticipate labor shortages to be certified to hire guest workers after they try and fail to recruit US workers and satisfy two other major conditions, provide free housing for guest workers and pay them the Adverse Effect Wage Rate, which is higher than the federal and state minimum wage. The number of jobs certified to be filled by H-2A workers doubled in the past five years and continued to increase in 2020.

Third, imports of labor-intensive commodities could increase. The US imports half of its fresh fruit, and a third of its fresh vegetables, most from Mexico, where a variety of protective structures from plastic covered hoops to greenhouses are extending seasons and improving quality. Over half of the fresh tomatoes consumed in the US are imported from Mexico.

Covid-19 is likely to accelerate mechanization, guest worker expansion, and imports. If the H-2A program expands in 2020 despite high US unemployment rates, hope that local workers will fill seasonal farm jobs may diminish. Instead, the machine, H-2A, and import choices facing industrial countries whose consumers want labor-intensive fresh fruits and vegetables may become clearer.

Policy will shape what happens in particular commodities. Government could encourage the development and diffusion of machines that replace workers with subsidies for research and coordination throughout the supply chain. Alternatively, government could facilitate or impede the entry of guest workers by lowering or raising their cost. Finally, trade and investment policies can encourage or discourage imports of fresh fruits and vegetables.

30 percent of the 152,000 acres of California raisin grapes in 2018 were harvested by machine. Canes with bunches of grapes are cut and machines with rotating fingers drop the partially dried raisins on to a continuous tray to finish drying into raisins

Fresno county has two-thirds of California raisin grape acreage; over 40 percent of Madera raisin grapes are machine harvested

Raisin-Type Grapes: Acreage by County, California, 2018 1
County Total Acreage Mechanical Harvest Type of Mechanical Harvest
Acres Total Acreage Overhead Trellis Acres Continuous Tray Acres South Side Trellis Acres Open Gable Acres
Fresno 107,577 32,991 31% 6,606 24,324 2 2
Kern 11,674 1,302 11% 828 2 2 2
Madera 23,605 10,161 43% 5,563 4,494 2 2
Other Counties 8,940 975 11% 349 817 618 1,830
Total 151,796 45,429 30% 13,346 29,635 618 1,830
1 Totals may not add due to rounding.
2 Included in Other Counties to avoid disclosing data for individual operations.
Raisin-Type Grapes: Acreage by Variety, California, 2018 1
County Total Acreage Mechanical Harvest Type of Mechanical Harvest
Acres Total Acreage Overhead Trellis Acres Continuous Tray Acres South Side Trellis Acres Open Gable Acres
Fiesta 16,241 8,197 50% 5,831 2,309 2 2
Selma Pete 6,221 4,200 68% 1,934 1,032 2 2
Thompson Seedless 126,492 32,191 25% 5,119 25,984 573 515
Other Raisin-Type 3 2,843 841 30% 462 310 45 1,314
Total Raisin-Type 151,796 45,429 30% 13,346 29,635 618 1,830
1 Totals may not add due to rounding.
2 Included in Other Raisin-Types to avoid disclosing data for individual operations.
3 Includes Black Corinth, Dovine, and Sultane varieties.

The number of farm jobs certified to be filled with H-2A workers rose fivefold between FY05 and FY19

Half of the fresh fruit consumed in the US, and a third of the fresh vegetables are imported

Import Share of Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Consumption, 2007
Commodity Import Share of Consumption, 2007 Commodity Import Share of Consumption, 2007
Mangoes 100% Apricots 22%
Limes 100% Watermelon 21%
Bananas 100% Raspberries 14%
Papayas 94% Onions 14%
Green onions 91% Snap beans 11%
Pineapples 90% Broccoli 11%
Asparagus 78% Peaches and nectarines 10%
Kiwifruit 78% Carrots 10%
Avocados 64% Cherries 9%
Grapes 57% Strawberries 8%
Cucumbers 52% Oranges 8%
Squash 51% Apples 7%
Blueberries 43% Lemons 7%
Tomatoes 41% Cauliflower 6%
Cantaloupe 35% Grapefruit 5%
Honeydew 33% Cabbage 5%
Radishes 29% Spinach 4%
Tangerines 27% Head lettuce 3%
Pears 23% Sweet corn 2%
Plums 22% Leaf/romaine lettuce 2%