The Farmworker Conundrum

Imagine Content
December 21, 2023

Labor shortages are hitting the food industry hard these days. A lack of restaurant employees, truck drivers and farm workers makes it more challenging to get the food you want at a reasonable price. 

Without significant reforms, there could be dire consequences for global food supplies, including collapsing productivity, skyrocketing food costs and less food security.  

Farm labor and the specialty crop market

The specialty crop market (produce fruits, vegetables and nursery crops) is especially vulnerable to farm worker shortages. 

It’s reported that over one-half of the 2.4 million farm laborers in the U.S. are undocumented immigrants. Many of those workers migrate from Mexico to work on U.S. farms. The New York Times reports that in 2017 and 2018, unauthorized immigrants accounted for 36 percent of crop workers hired by California farms. A decade earlier, that number approached 70 percent. Securing consistent farm labor has become even more complicated in recent years due to restrictive immigration laws, the COVID-19 pandemic and a competitive labor market. 

The USDA Economic Resource Center reports that specialty crop farms had the highest share of labor costs to total cash expenses (39%) in 2018, compared to all farming operations. In fact, the ratio of labor costs to total cash expenses for specialty crop farms was more than three times higher than the average for all farms. 

These statistics indicate that specialty farms are more vulnerable to labor shortages or wage shocks than others in the industry. Vegetables, fruit and nursery crops are often more labor-intensive to plant, manage and harvest than traditional row crops, and may require year-round maintenance.     

Without workers, specialty crop farms don’t have the hands they need to plant, care for and harvest crops to meet market needs. California is the nation’s sole exporter of many agricultural commodities, supplying 99 percent or more almonds, artichokes, dates, figs, garlic, kiwifruit, olives, pistachios, raisins, table grapes, processing tomatoes and walnuts. 

Therefore, labor shortages in the U.S. will impact global food supplies. Without a consistent farm workforce, food prices will continue to climb, specialty crop farms lose revenue potential and food is wasted as valuable crops are left in fields to rot. Food security is also threatened as it becomes more difficult to supply products to meet growing demands.  

Legislation to support farm workers

It’s clear that the U.S. farm economy depends on foreign-born workers. Unfortunately, many of those employees are unauthorized immigrants who may live in fear of legal action, deportation or family breakups if they challenge illegal or unfair workplace treatment.  

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act bill could help relieve some of these concerns for farm workers. It provides a path to lawful permanent residency for undocumented workers and their families. Legal protection could help workers secure higher wages and more favorable working conditions. The bill would also allow farms to hire seasonal workers year-round, enabling a stable workforce to meet peak demands. These benefits are impactful for the specialty crop market, which requires a consistent labor force throughout the year.   

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act passed the House twice with bipartisan support and is close to gaining acceptance in the Senate. As of August 2022, it appears a deal has been reached on some sticking points, including farm worker wages and caps on the number of expanded visas for farm workers. The bill’s expansion of worker rights continues to provide a hurdle for Senate approval. If the deal isn’t approved by the end of 2022, lawmakers must etch a new agreement from scratch in the new Congress. 

Farms of the future

Even with legislation to improve the farm workforce, farm operators may need to deploy new strategies to remain competitive in the specialty crop market. If farm wages continue to increase, operators may reduce crop acreage or adjust crop plans. 

Some operations are switching to less labor-intensive crops to mitigate labor shortages and control costs. Acreage devoted to crops like bell peppers, broccoli and fresh tomatoes has been declining in the U.S., partially due to labor issues and production expenses.

Other specialty crop farms are looking toward robotics and technology that could automate farm tasks, reducing labor requirements. A recent Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology survey reports that 65 percent of participating specialty crop growers had invested in automation over the past three years. Some experts estimate that the agricultural robot industry will reach $75 billion in 2025, demonstrating the value that mechanization has in the industry. 

Even with innovative technology, farms will still need a consistent labor force to meet growing production demands. A combination of strategies, including investments in employee recruitment and training, mechanization technologies and more efficient on-farm management, can help specialty farm operators remain profitable.     

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