Breaking our backs – the future of farm labor

This is a long form version of an article I wrote for the Farm Credit Banks about the future of farm labor. The bottom line in this piece is that, while automation and robotics will eventually impact how farm work gets done, indeed already is, still much or even most farm labor will be done by people in the next several years. The question is, who are these people? You can link to the published article in Yields Magazine here.

I was ten years old when I took my first paying job. We had moved that summer from a small town in Idaho to an even smaller town in Oregon, where a new neighbor farmed a commercial scale blueberry field. Come harvest time in August, shortly after we had arrived, my brothers and I were hired to help pick the berries. Over a few days I made $13, which I used to purchase a Hank Aaron baseball glove, a prized possession for years to come.

This was my entry into the world of farm labor, as I can now see looking back on that time. By age 12 we were old enough to work the commercial strawberry and raspberry harvests in June and July getting paid pennies per pound. Almost all of our co-workers were school children, though the best pickers were adults bused by the field owners out from the streets of Portland. As I got older we added the blackberry and then the green bean picking seasons, extending the job window into early august. By high school I was also doing spring time grooming of the raspberry fields, cutting and hoeing suckers. Tearing down spent bean vines, hauling hay out of fields, working from midnight to four in the morning carrying grown chickens from vast barns to the trucks, picking daffodil bulbs by crawling through fields on our hands and knees all became part of our summers. Eventually we moved on to better paying and easier work at local summer retreat centers and then the state parks or Forest Service. My agricultural work days came to an end by age 18.

Finding labor for farm work has been a perennial challenge, as those in the business know. The struggle to provide for farm labor has been a long one and my days in fields were indirectly a part of it. In the early 1960’s, the period I refer to above, the Bracero program initiated after World War II was coming to an end. This was a program begun in 1942 to bring Mexican workers to U.S. farms during the war, then continued to enable the importation of Mexican workers for farms and railroads. The program was terminated on December 1, 1964, amid charges of corruption, wage theft, poor working conditions, and the feeling that the imported workers were taking jobs that Americans ought to be doing and would do if the jobs were made available. Sound familiar?

With that belief in mind, in early 1965 Secretary of Agriculture Willard Wirtz conceived of a program to recruit 20,000 high schoolers to replace the hundreds of thousands of Mexican agricultural workers. But he did not want just any 20,000 high school students, he wanted the jocks. To great fanfare the “A-TEAM” program was announced – “Athletes in Temporary Employment as Agricultural Manpower!” Adding publicity to the program at the announcement, the Secretary was joined by professional athletes Stan Musial, Warren Spahn and Jim Brown. (Interestingly most of my ag co-workers at precisely this time were indeed teammates on the school ball teams., though berry picking was pretty evenly split between boys and girls.)

Local newspapers touted their local A-TEAMs as they left for the fields. The Courier of Waterloo Iowa, for example, ran a feature story on 31 local boys boarding a bus to head for the strawberry and asparagus fields of Salinas, California for the summer. There they would earn minimum age of $1.40 an hour plus in some cases piece rates per crate. They would live in barracks or former migrant housing and be supervised by adults as they worked 6 days a week.

Soon the results came in. Reams of A-TEAM members quit within two weeks on the job. Others staged strikes. In the end the A-TEAM was considered a failure and never tried again.

But the dream of replacing immigrant and temporary farm workers with Americans never seems to die. In 2011 Alabama and Georgia ran an experiment, severely limiting immigrant farm workers and counting on local residents to take up the farm jobs now available. The result?

“When Alabama and Georgia cracked down on undocumented labor in 2011, when unemployment was high, crops rotted in the fields. Farms lost millions in sales. (A University of Georgia study pegged losses in that state at $140 million due to a shortage of 5,000 workers.) The native American workers never did materialize.” (2)

The year 2018 has been seeing similar dynamics amid the well documented crack down on undocumented and even previously documented farm workers across the nation. In Delaware, crab harvesters lost much of their business as the crab pickers who normally came each summer from Mexico were not allowed under limited H2-B visas obtainable by lottery. In California produce and fruit farmers struggled to fill jobs, with about four jobs available for each eligible worker, compared to a national dilemma on the farm of two jobs for every worker.

In the greater Northwest in 2018, according to the Yakima Herald, the year was not too bad, as fruit and hop growers and others found sufficient local and H2-A workers. Larger farms tended to rely more on H2-A workers despite the need to provide housing and pay prevailing wages while smaller operators found that this freed up local and West Coast itinerants to fill their needs. The number of H2-A visa workers in Washington state has grown from 3000 guest workers in 2009 to 22,000 in 2018. The Herald concluded that as of late August 2018 it was too soon to determine if crops were left unharvested or whether this year was relatively successful. Around the country the consensus in 2018 is that better national management of farm labor is essential to the future.

While some operations can be and have been fully mechanized so that little human labor is needed, may kinds of farming resist easy automation.

“…robot talk is mostly “silly,” said University of California, Berkeley, economist Gordon Rausser in a telephone interview. Much of American agriculture — corn, soybeans, wheat — was mechanized long before the robots invaded. In recent years, processing plants and packaging houses have automated significantly. But most fruits and vegetables in the field remain stubbornly dependent on human hands.” (2)

Recent legislative efforts to address the long-term problem of insufficient farm labor visas have languished in committees in Washington D.C., caught in the unending battle over immigration policy. At home, local residents are little inclined to pick up the labor slack, while second generation Mexican and other immigrant families see the same desires at play – their children seek opportunities beyond the kind of farm labor that brought their parents here. Little relief is in sight at this time, in the current political climate. But change is required in order to create a preferred farm labor future.

First, new policies for H2-A and B visas must be hammered out that allow for more people to enter the country for agricultural work, both seasonal and long-term, along with better and more timely access to workers at the right time for producers and contractors.

Second, various software and other technology for labor management can be deployed that speeds up application processes, tracks people better, and provides e-Verify assurance. This of course raises the issue of how to deal with legal versus undocumented workers, as various surveys suggest that from about 25% to as many as 50% of immigrant farm laborers may be undocumented. History clearly shows that simply saying “send them home” to allow Americans to take the jobs will not work. As Zippy Duvall, President of the American Farm Bureau puts it, “We’re coming to a point where America will have to decide if we’re going to import workers or import our food.”(7) Most in the industry agree that the H2-A program as currently run is inadequate to the need, and that proposed administrative changes are insufficient. Legislative answers are required.

Beyond that farmers are looking for ways to improve the labor situation directly. For example,

“While some farmers are employing their laborers year-round (even if they don’t need year-round help) in an effort to keep them, others are offering good benefits and “using equity in the operation as a way to motivate the best employees to stay and help build the business,” says Joe Horner, a University of Missouri ag economist whose expertise includes farm labor management.” (7)

Increasing the technical sophistication of the work through forms of automation also opens new avenues to the kind of worker who may be attracted.

Technological advances do play a role in reducing the need for farm labor as well, though achieving more automation in the produce industry will be costly and likely to take longer than hoped. Still, Driscoll’s is developing machines to pick strawberries, auto-steer systems on farm equipment can reduce labor needs in potatoes, corn, cotton, peanuts and more. Precision ag and no-till farming can further reduce the need for hired labor.

Ultimately U.S. farmers “need a guest worker program that meets both their needs and farm workers’ needs and brings stability to our food system” notes Duvall of the American Farm Bureau.(7) Without that and recognizing that an imagined future where robots do all the work is at best a distant dream, answers to stable farm labor are needed now. Without such answers affected operators may face the need to scale back operations or leave their industry entirely.

1. When The U.S. Government Tried To Replace Migrant Farmworkers With High Schoolers, NPR story reported on KQED, August 23, 2018.

2. Robots Won’t Pick Tom Cotton’s Strawberries, by Francis Wilkinson, Bloomberg, March 8, 2018.

3. ‘Please Come Help’, by Teo Armus, Washington Post , August 17, 2018.

4. Farmers lobby for immigration reform to address labor shortages, by Janae Francis, Christian Science Monitor, February 23, 2018.

5. Pago, the Ag Labor Platform, By Stephanie Metzinger, Western Growers, May 11, 2018.

6. As Washington growers struggle with labor shortage, vote in Congress on farmworker bill remains elusive, by Hal Bernton, Seattle Times, August 6, 2018.

7. U.S. Farmers Encounter Ongoing Farm Labor Shortage, AgAmerica Lending, July 12, 2018.

8. More guest workers offering relief to growers this harvest season, by Phil Ferolito, Yakima Herald Republic, p.1, September 14, 2018.

9. HELP WANTED: HOW FARMERS ARE TACKLING A LABOR SHORTAGE, by John Walter, Successful Farming, February 5, 2018.

10. Who Are California Crop Workers and How Is This Changing? Slide presentation by Susan Gabbard at the annual APMA Forum, January 28, 2016.