I recently attended two large fruit and vegetable meetings. At both the dominant source of discussion by guest politicians, keynote speakers and farmers was labor. More precisely, discussions centered around a shortage of labor.
Nationwide it is estimated that fruit and vegetable growers will lose $3 billion to $8 billion in 2007, due to lack of labor to plant, maintain and harvest crops. This loss is more tragic considering the increase in U.S. demand for fresh food and the weak U.S. dollar, which make exporting vegetables, especially to western Europe, a viable marketing option.
Each politician who spoke at these meetings had what seems to be a logical and plausible solution to the farm labor problem. Implementation of these solutions seem simple to me — we as a nation have to decide between importing labor and importing food.
According to statistics thrown out at the meetings, vegetable production in the U.S. now makes up 29 percent of total farm income. More surprisingly, fruit, vegetables and turf, which are lumped together with a few other things and called ‘alternative crops’ make up 49 percent of total farm income in the U.S.
I don’t know if either of those percentages are accurate, but based on the dramatic increase in vegetable production from southern Georgia to southern Virginia, I can believe the numbers are accurate for the Southeast.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, unemployment in the U.S. stood at 4.5 percent in November of 2006. Full labor is considered to be 95 percent. I’m not sure how 95 percent constitutes a full labor force, but if that is true, we have .5 percent more jobs in the U.S. than we have people to fill these jobs.
In the fruit and vegetable industry, we have considerably more than .5 more jobs than people to fill these jobs. The alternative to providing a stable labor force for fruits and vegetables is to produce less. We all know from economics 101 that fewer products means more demand and higher prices. In reality, higher prices for most fruits and vegetables mean imports.
Georgia Senator Johnny Isaakson probably has the most realistic approach to solving the farm labor crisis, and make no mistake, it is a crisis in the Southeast. Sen. Isaakson says the problem is a Federal problem and the U.S. Congress should pass legislation to establish a worker visitation program that is affordable and understandable for both farmers and foreign workers, and we should enforce these laws.
It sounds simple enough, but the farm labor problem has more twists and curves than a winding country road. Farmers don’t want cheap labor, they want fair labor and most are willing to pay a premium price for good workers. Working 60 hours a week, skilled field and packing house labor in the fruit and vegetable industry can easily make $10,000 per quarter.
Without a meaningful visiting farm worker program, the biggest management problem for vegetable and annual fruit growers in the Southeast will be how much to plant based on how much labor will be available to harvest the crop. When most of their labor force leaves in October and November, and all a farmer has to base planting decisions on is a handshake, a smile and a promise in broken English that they will be back next year, it’s tough to invest well over a thousand dollars an acre to put down plastic, irrigation lines and seed.
One North Carolina grower recently told me he would give me $1,000 for every U.S. citizen I brought to work on his farm, and who stayed there and worked for six consecutive months. He said he had made that same offer to hundreds of people over the past few years and no one has ever taken him up on it.
Clearly, building houses and landscaping yards and golf courses is perceived by foreign workers to be more lucrative and culturally rewarding than picking peaches or packing strawberries. That may be the case, I don’t know. It seems simple enough to recruit farm workers, give them a labor card, swipe the card when they cross the border, and if it isn’t swiped again in the allotted amount of time, find them and send them back home or to jail.
Except for a few native Americans, all our ancestors came here from somewhere. For the first 200 years or so, our immigration policy seems to have worked just fine. Being an illegal alien had consequences back then, now it seems to come with full benefits, as long as you don’t get caught.
Whatever the answer, a solution to our farm labor problem must come quickly, and it must be affordable and enforceable. Otherwise, the potential offered by expanded U.S. demands for fresh fruits and vegetables will realized by farmers outside the U.S.