Economic impact of a guest worker program on American agriculture


Fox News
carried on 4/10 a story, “Farmers Keep Wary Eye on Immigration Debate” which has some good interview quotes. The nub of the article is that farm owners need Hispanic workers and they need them cheap ($10 and hour). A guest worker program will provide the workers, but I expect at a noticeably higher cost. I have noted that the bill sent out by the Senate Judiciary Committee had an “AgJobs” component.here.
Here is my posting about my own remote state of Vermont depending on Hispanic workers to keep its diary industry alive –if only for the tourism industry.
From the Fox News article:

Cutting farmers’ access to cross-border workers without giving them an alternative could cost the industry up to $9 billion in annual production, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation, which has long lobbied for a streamlined temporary worker program.

Illegal immigrants make up about 53 percent of the nation’s roughly 1.8 million farmworkers, and cutting off the flow of willing workers — legal or not — to the fresh fruits and vegetables that need picking would spell the end for many farmers, Rousseau said. [PFR—the Pew Hispanic Center believes that about 25% of farmworkers are illegal workers]. “We know local folks won’t take those jobs, at any price,” said Rousseau, who hires up to 700 seasonal workers to harvest his crops in Phoenix.

The average wage for skilled and unskilled farm workers is about $10 an hour, said Austin Perez, a labor specialist with the federation. If that were raised to $14, up to a third of the nation’s fruit and vegetable farms might be forced out of business, he said. And that still might not be enough to recruit large numbers of native-born workers, Perez added.

While a border crackdown is a vision of doom for many farmers, the numbers show consumers wandering supermarket aisles might hardly feel the difference. That’s because very little of the price of produce actually goes back to the farmer. When you take home a $1 head of lettuce, only 19 cents go to the farmer; and six cents of that go to the worker who picked it, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The real difference would be whether the food is grown in America or abroad. The shift has begun already, as American farmers face steeper labor, fuel and other costs.

For instance, the town of Gilroy, south of San Jose, still calls itself the “Garlic Capital of the World,” and anoints an annual Garlic Queen. But China, where production costs are much lower, now grows about 66 percent of the world’s garlic, according to the Agriculture Department. Fear of an immigration crackdown is already chasing some ag businesses across the border where the workers are, said vegetable harvester and shipper Steve Scaroni.

His company hires 1,500 people in California and Arizona during harvests to pick fresh produce and take it to companies who bag it and give it a brand name. But some of his customers are so concerned that they’re shifting their operations to Mexico. And he’s following. The solution farmers are hoping for — one not promised by any of the current bills — is a program allowing farmers to bring as many workers as they need across the border, without the time or expense of the current guest worker program.

Chalmers Carr, who ships about 1 million boxes of peaches from his 2,500-acre operation in South Carolina, has been using the existing program to bring in up to 300 workers a year from Mexico. It’s expensive — he estimates it costs him about $500 in fees and transportation costs to bring in one worker for one season, not including the mandatory housing expenses. It’s also time consuming — in February, he asked for the workers he’d need in April and was still waiting for approval this week.

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