Farmers Under 40: Could Farms Survive Without Illegal Labor?

The New York Times “Room For Debate” opinion pages asks whether American farms can survive without illegal labor. Economists, activists and policy researchers all weigh in. And so does Benjamin Shute, co-owner of Hearty Roots Community Farm in the Hudson Valley and co-founder of the Young Farmers Coalition. “We need to set a national priority to encourage a new generation of young farmers, and we must adjust our system of agriculture to make farms into places where Americans want to work,” Shute writes in his op-ed. I found this particularly interesting coming on the heels of our Farmers Under 40 series. Click here to read on.

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12 Comments on “Farmers Under 40: Could Farms Survive Without Illegal Labor?”

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  1. Pete Klein says:

    I’m sorry but the op-ed piece sounds like wishful thinking. I don’t see the suggestions as the wave to the future.
    Two basic problems without even looking at the cost of land and the investments needed to farm.
    If you are growing crops, most of the work is seasonal.
    If you are raising animals, it’s a 24/7/365 job.

  2. jeff says:

    I concur. Also the crops are commodities that are essentially undifferentiated so price becomes the determining factor (usually). So whatever can lower the price can bring buyers. It spirals ever downward. The next area to have lower costs gets the business.

    On the harvesting side the seasonal nature of harvests makes it difficult to survive as a laborer in such a trade unless one is a migrant and that is tough on family life. It doesn’t help that there is no overtime pay.

    The young farmer’s programs have generally spoken to what folks are doing to differentiate themselves and their products as well as to serve market niches. Still when a competitor offers the same product for less, the business is likely to go.

    No different than Boeing and their desire to have lower wage workers thus they built a plant in South Carolina.

    The consumer has to make the choice of buying from “neighbors” so “neighbors” can buy from or hire that consumer. But it eventually gets closer to subsistance. The opportunity to amass income beyond needs declines. Unless someone has more than they need growth cannot take place.

  3. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    The surprising thing is that there are a number of relatively well-off, highly educated people who are moving out of cities and working farms because they LIKE the work. Some of them use the experience as fodder (so to speak) for their side-job as writers or journalists but others are just farming.

    I know a few of these new farmers, and they are very sharp business-people. Is the farming just a hobby which they can afford to lose money at? Probably. But I’ll bet most of them are actually making some money. The thing they all seem to have in common is that they are all very driven, so they may just make it work through sheer stubbornness. But I think that they see a way to make farming work. For how long, I don’t know.

    I am not tremendously hopeful for the small farmers I grew up with who have had family farms for generations. In fact most of those people were pushed out by Earl Butz. The labor problem is just icing on the cake of financial disaster.

  4. Mervel says:

    Well I think that a certain model of farming could work for certain young people. In the Northeast you can grow a variety of fruits and vegetables and also people are indeed interested in local food. This can work.

    The issue are farmers in industries or areas where this is impossible. Large sections of our nation are great for single commodity crops, largely corn, wheat, soybeans, etc. but not so great for vegetables or local food.

    I do think that some agriculture is going to need labor that the US is not ready to produce. Just in our local area take the larger dairy farms, they cannot find enough local skilled labor to run their operations. The migrants they use are not unskilled, they know what they are doing so if you can hire someone good who because they are living on the farm always going to show up or someone unskilled and not always showing up, who are you going to hire? I think that people believe that migrant labor is about paying less, it is not it is about getting the best people for the job. That is something we sometimes don’t want to hear.

  5. jeff says:

    I expect many farm workers are unskilled when they arrive. I’ve met legal and illegal immigrants who are not doing farm work but they did not have experience in what they now do.

    When there is an excess supply of labor, the employer can keep wages low until he has some workers he wants to keep to avoid the expense of re-training. Just like in The Grapes of Wrath where the established workers are fired if they wouldn’t work for the lower wages the new workers offered to take. It is the same thing as transferring jobs to China.

    I’d do farm work if I was un-employed elsewhere. But how can I have a second job if I am expected to be there for morning milking and leave then return for the second milking? There are robots to do milking these days. I’d pick crops but the work doesn’t last long enough in one location to support a stationary household- might be a retirement job. It would be good seasonal work for people who don’t have the overhead of house or family such as teenagers. Thus people come here from where the living expense is lower and send their extra money back “home.” Here the likely candidates are in school or at other minimum wage jobs and the school system no-longer allows for agricultural needs.

    To the core topic; can they work without illegals? They must. I have to obey the speed limit, so must they. The sawmills I visit have to obey the law, so must the farmers.

    There are other means by which employers get price advantages; not offering employee benefits because the nature of their markets does not provide the income to do so; not paying worker’s compensation by improperly declaring workers to be independent contractors or partners despite being intimately involved in the direction of the work and its results;hiring Amish who (in some states) can waive social security and worker’s compensation. So for instance, the employer looks at me and says “for this Amish guy I don’t have to pay WC or SSI which lowers my production costs, I’ll hire him.” It isn’t illegal but it is a job I cannot compete for.

    With “no” illegals, there can be no coercion or intimidation by implying the person will be reported for deportation. The worker can walk away for a better situation and feel free to report illegal activities to the authorities. All farms would then have the same baseline for competition.

  6. Pete Klein says:

    In many ways this what happened back in the 70’s with the “back to the land” movement of the hippies. Some stayed and got real jobs. Some of those also farmed but more like a hobby. The others moved back to the cities and the suburbs for work.

  7. Mervel says:

    The answer though is that many of our current farming operations cannot run without immigrant labor. It would be better if that labor was legal.

  8. Peter Hahn says:

    Worldwide, agriculture functions with transient immigrant labor. We are no different. Most countries use a mixture of legal and illegal immigrants – so do we. We probably should develop a “bracero” program to let immigrants in legally to harvest crops etc, but that can be such a corrupt oppressive system, that the present illegal system may be more humane.

    Historically we had indentured servants and slavery for the first several hundred years. This was considered “legal” at the time. The indentured servants got to be citizens after a while, the slaves didn’t. Since then, we have had loose borders and mechanization. The (illegal) immigrant labor has functioned as one more agricultural subsidy. They aren’t paid enough to pay taxes to support the social services necessary to care for and educate their families.

    Maybe the new crop of under 40 farmers can come up with an agricultural model that works without immigrant labor.

  9. Mervel says:

    I think that they already have.

    In reality much of modern agriculture does not rely on immigrant labor. Wheat, corn, soybeans, large scale mechanized operations in the Midwest do not use immigrant labor. Ranching in general does not utilize large amounts of immigrant labor.

    Dairy, vegetables and fruits are the main agricultural areas that use immigrant labor if we do not include food processing and slaughterhouse operations.

    I don’t have a problem with using immigrant labor, these guys know what they are doing and they are not paid substandard wages. They get paid low wages for sure but so do many American service workers. I wonder if the recession will finally impact more local unemployed citizens to do this work? I don’t think it will but maybe?

  10. jeff says:

    Is there a conclusion out there implying that, farms cannot work without “illegal” immigrant labor; because we are not willing to pay enough for certain farm products which might enable farmers to pay employees enough to have a house of their own and buy a car and pay for healthcare, etc?

    I think the product is cheap because it is readily available. We have excess immigration given tacit support because we want cheap food. Niche marketing attempts to create a unique product and break from the commodity atmosphere. If there are those who find a way, great.

    The cash for cows program of the mid 80’s attempted to reduce milk production. I don’t think it worked…. We had 15 manure wagons a day going past our house last week. The source was 4 miles away. Had to close the windows those evenings.

  11. Mervel says:

    You know I don’t think it is always about price for labor or for food. Sometimes it truly is a lack of labor willing to do the work with the skills needed. When the crop needs to come in it needs to come in, cows need to be milked every day, either the labor is there or not and you lose if its not there. Thus many times immigrant labor is indeed the best option.

    From what I can tell the vast majority of the legal and illegal immigrant farm labor in the US make more then legal wages, ranging from $8-$25 per hour depending on the work being performed. What bothers me is the idea that immigrant farm labor is somehow unskilled work that US citizens won’t do. I remember growing up in the 1970’s in SD we did use some immigrant labor for shearing sheep, they were skilled and better at it than anyone locally, they knew what they were doing. I think the same holds for many of these jobs, it IS tough often dirty work but it is also skilled work. It is not always about getting some cheap labor.

  12. Peter Hahn says:

    T echo Mervel: When I lived in Davis California, we were surrounded by processing tomato fields. They were harvested with big machines with a assembly line – lots of people – sorting the tomatoes as the machine went through the fields. It ran 24 hours a day and the night shift was when the illegals worked because the immigration officials were less likely to bother them. The night shift was the most productive shift as well because the illegals were so much more skilled.

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