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The transformation of Mexican farm labor supply to the U.s.

Only 2% of California’s farm labor is U.S.- born. Foreign workers, mainly Mexicans, are essential for California’s production of labor intensive agriculture. (For a list of the major “FVH” farm products, such as avocados, grapes and lettuce, go here.)

Two very recent studies from US Davis and US Sacramento examine the impact of shorter supplies of low wage farm workers from Mexico.

A new study from the University of California at Davis reports on shifts in agriculture in Mexico that may be affecting the supply of Mexican farm workers in the United States.

Mexican food distribution is increasing through large retailers, such as Walmart. These large merchandisers have “strict quality, quantity and timing standards” that small family farms cannot easily meet. This is leading to more industrial farm production.

Supermarkets think cross-border, not locally. Thus Californian food will be sold in Mexican stores in one season, and Mexican food in Californian stores in another season.

The net effect of these and other changes is to tighten the supply of Mexican low wage farm labor to work in either Mexico or the U.S. (Mexico now imports farm labor from Guatemala.)

MPI reports that farm labor costs in the U.S. are rising. When the farm unions rose in California (think Cesar Chaves) in the 1960s, farm worker wages rose by 40%. If farm wages increase significantly, the MPI predicts more mechanization (which is already picking a lot of wine grapes) and shift towards importing farm produce that cannot be easily mechanize.

A study from the University of California in Sacramento (“The End of Farm Labor Abundance”) says that “New data from the Mexico National Rural Household Survey reveal that the same shift out of farm work that characterized U.S. farm labor history is well underway in Mexico. Meanwhile, the demand for farm and non-farm workers in Mexico is rising, and a combination of recession and border enforcement has discouraged new Mexico-to-U.S. migration. The decline in foreign farm labor supply to the United States has far-reaching implications for farm production, immigration policy, and rural poverty in California and other labor-intensive agricultural regions.”

The UC Davis study (see the powerpoint here) says that farm productivity in Mexico has risen by 300% since 2003, leading to a 25% decline in the workforce along more production.

The report quotes Passel of The Pew Hispanic Center: “The supply of Mexican labor available to work in the United States has fallen due to a sharp decrease in Mexico’s total fertility rate and employment growth in Mexico.”

What happens when mechanization comes into California farms? Fewer low skilled workers, more high skilled workers, and hard from low skilled workers to transition up.

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