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July 2008, Volume 14, Number 3

AgJOBS, EARA, Mechanization

AgJOBS remained a top priority for farm employer and worker groups during the summer of 2008. Both argued that the status quo is untenable.

The Senate Appropriations Committee on a 17-12 vote on May 15, 2008 approved a substitute to AgJOBS, the 101-page Emergency Agriculture Relief Act (part of HR 2642). Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Larry Craig (R-ID) argued that the EARA was needed to get US crops picked and to slow the exodus of labor-intensive crops to Mexico. Feinstein said: "Agriculture needs a consistent workforce. Without it, they can't plant, they can't prune, they can't pick and they can't pack."

Senators Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and Robert Byrd (D-WV) opposed the EARA as an amnesty for unauthorized foreigners. The Bush administration also opposed the EARA, and it was deleted from HR 2642.

EARA Provisions. Under the EARA, up to 1.35 million unauthorized foreigners who worked at least 863 hours or 150 days in agriculture between January 1, 2004 and December 31, 2007, and earned at least $7,000 from farm work, could receive a temporary legal status good for five years in exchange for a $250 fee. This means that applicants could have arrived as late as mid-2007 to qualify for legal status. Spouses and children in the US when temporary legal residence is granted would also receive five-year visas, and the spouses could receive work visas that do not require them to do farm work.

Applicants would have to use a lawyer or certified group to apply for temporary legal status, but would not be liable for back taxes or penalties for using false SSNs. The information provided in applications for temporary status could not be used for enforcement of social security and related identity fraud.

In order to retain temporary legal status, farm workers would have do at least 100 days of farm work a year. This means that farm workers could switch employers and mostly do nonfarm work and enter and leave the US at will.

The EARA would also relax H-2A regulations for five years and supersede the regulations announced by DOL in February 2008 (see below). For farm employers, the most important provision may be freezing the required minimum wage, the Adverse Effect Wage Rate, at January 1, 2008 levels for three years. Under the EARA, the AEWR would be adjusted upward with the current methodology, based on the change in the average hourly earnings of field and livestock workers as reported by farm employers to NASS.

Farm employers could "attest" to their need for H-2A workers, eliminating the supervised recruitment that now occurs, and could provide a housing allowance rather than free housing to H-2A and out-of-area US workers if the state's governor certified there was sufficient farm worker housing in the area.

The EARA would sunset after five years, an effort to encourage growers to maintain their interest in providing immigrant status to unauthorized farm workers.

Mexico. One justification for immigration reform is that, without a secure and legal work force, US growers will move production of labor-intensive commodities to Mexico. Mexico's main comparative advantages are climate (winter production) and lower labor costs; US imports of Mexican fruit and vegetables have increased.

Fruit imports from Mexico rose from 700,000 million tons in 1990 to 1.8 million tons in 2007. Vegetable imports rose from 1.2 million tons in 1990 to 3.2 million tons in 2007. The US produces about 26 million tons of fruit and 54 million tons of vegetables and melons a year, so that Mexican imports add about seven percent to US fruit consumption and six percent to US vegetable consumption.

The major fruit imported from Mexico are avocados, which had been kept out of the US by fears of disease until recently. The major vegetable is fresh tomatoes, mostly sent to the US during the winter and spring months. Many of the fresh green onions consumed in the US are produced near Mexicali, Mexico. Peru has surpassed Mexico as the major source of imported fresh asparagus. The US imports about two percent of its lettuce from Mexico. Lettuce imports are increasing as growers with contracts, which require them to supply bagged salad products seek the insurance of multiple production sources in the event weather or disease disrupt US production.

Mechanization. Ramsay Highlander has developed a machine to mechanically harvest iceberg lettuce. A four-pulley band saw machine costs $250,000, while a water knife system that reduces the risk of E coli or salmonella costs $400,000. The machines reduce typical lettuce harvest crews from 30 to 12 workers, and quickly repay their costs.

Ramsay has sold 30 mechanical vegetable harvesters since 2002, most with band saws to cut spinach, arugula, chard and baby leaf lettuces. Prices for the stainless steel machines range from about $250,000 for a spinach harvester to $350,000 for a romaine lettuce harvester.

In the early 1970s, USDA's Agricultural Research Service employed 10 engineers to examine labor-saving methods of harvesting fruit, additionally there were 16 engineers at land-grant universities conducting similar research. Peterson reported that in 1979, when he was named head of ARS fruit mechanization research, USDA announced that it would no longer fund research that displaced hand workers. Peterson wrote: "When I started my career with ARS [in 1970], I was told that the fruit industry would not have a reliable labor force in five years."

"Flat vegetable economy slowing debut of mechanized iceberg lettuce harvester," Western Farm Press, June 27, 2008. Peterson, Donald. 2006. Working toward mechanical harvest for tree fruits. Good Fruit Grower. January 15. Vol. 57 No. 2.