Labor Crisis?

Reading an article about pollinator loss in The American Vegetable Grower magazine (an industrial ag publication), this sentence caught my attention: “The bee issue may not be as in your face as solving the labor crisis, but these beneficial pollinating insects have an important job: they help increase yields of fruit and vegetable crops.”

The labor crisis? What labor crisis? I wondered.

I consulted the Google and discovered that there is indeed a critical labor shortage on industrial vegetable farms. These mega-farms have traditionally depended upon undocumented (“illegal”) farm workers from Mexico for their labor supply. And with the recent steep drops in illegal immigration, now they’re not able to get their crops harvested.

Consider this, from a Wall Street Journal article (HERE):

Last year, about a quarter of Biringer Farm’s strawberries and raspberries rotted in the field because it couldn’t find enough workers. Samantha Bond was determined not to let that happen again.

Early this year, Ms. Bond, human resources manager for the 35-acre farm in Arlington, Wash., offered 20% raises to the most productive workers from the last harvest. She posted help-wanted ads on Craigslist, beside highways and on the bathroom-stall door at a church. She also successfully lobbied local high schools to broadcast her call for workers during morning announcements.

Despite Ms. Bond’s efforts, Biringer again faced a worker shortage and typically drew fewer than 60 of the roughly 100 employees it needed on harvest days. “There was definitely hair-pulling going on,” she said.

Ms. Bond’s travails reflect a broader struggle by U.S. fruit, vegetable and dairy farms to secure farmhands as illegal immigration from Mexico declines and a strengthened U.S. economy makes it easier for people to find less backbreaking work, often in areas with cheaper housing costs. In an industry notorious for poor working conditions, farm companies are wooing employees by raising wages faster than inflation and enhancing medical and other benefits. Even so, many farms say these efforts have failed to meaningfully address their worker shortfalls.

Overall in the U.S., the decline in workers is reducing fruit and vegetable production by 9.5%, or $3.1 billion, a year, according to a recently published analysis of government data by the Partnership for a New American Economy, a nonpartisan group that supports a looser immigration policy.

The problem started years ago and was temporarily exacerbated this summer by a glitch that snarled processing for seasonal-worker visas and delayed the arrival in the U.S. of thousands of legal farm laborers, leading to millions of dollars of crop losses in California and other states.

More broadly, growers say they are bearing the brunt of the federal government’s crackdown on illegal immigration, as they lack a suitable alternative workforce. U.S.-born workers unaccustomed to farm labor abandon the job after just days during harvest, farm owners say, and the supply of mostly Mexican laborers that made up for them has shrunk in recent years. That is partly due to tighter U.S. control of its southern border and a declining Mexican birthrate that has decreased the number of young workers heading to the U.S.

Nationwide, the average hourly wages for crop workers hired directly by farmers have climbed 5.3% to $11.33, adjusted for inflation, in the past four years, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. That runs counter to the overall long-term trend for low-skilled work in U.S. retail and other industries, where there has been little real-wage growth.

Meanwhile, U.S. crop workers’ average age has risen to 38 years old, from 33 in 2000, according to federal data, making them less likely to seek out the most arduous jobs.

The article gives examples of companies paying $16-17/hour for field labor in Arizona and California, and still being unable to acquire enough labor to get their crops harvested.

So without a steady and reliable supply of desperate immigrants willing to pick their vegetables, these industrial operations are losing crops (and therefore revenue). And that situation isn’t likely to improve, as the average age of field workers continues to climb. The back of a 20 year old can handle bending over to pick strawberries all day much easier than the back of a 40 year old can (I can personally attest to that fact).

Commodity agriculture is becoming so automated and roboticized that it doesn’t have to depend upon much human labor. Not so with vegetable farming. At least for now, harvesting still requires manual human labor and there is increasingly less of that available.

So along with pollinator loss and drought, we can add “the labor crisis” to the list of things that are making industrial vegetable farming unsustainable.

Incidentally, according to the Vegetable Grower article, between April 2015 and April 2016 U.S. beekeepers lost 44% of their colonies, up 3.5% from the previous year.

Shifting gears now, for any who made it this far, I’ve added a link to our Instagram feed in the right hand column of the blog, for those folks who enjoy seeing pictures from our place. I got the idea from Melissa of Evergrowing Farm, whose excellent blog (HERE) also has a link to her equally excellent Instagram Feed.