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American agriculture at a crossroads between imports, machines and migrants

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The slowdown in unauthorized Mexico-US migration has set off a race in U.S. fields between rising imports, more machines, and foreign guest workers. Trade policy, including NAFTA re-negotiations and immigration policy, particularly the enforcement of new or revised guest worker programs, will determine the winner.

Americans do not dream of growing up to be farm workers. About 70 percent of the hired workers on crop farms were born in Mexico, and 70 percent of these Mexican-born workers are unauthorized. That means about half of crop workers are working illegally.

Crop workers are aging and settling. Most have families that include U.S.-born children, and follow-the-crop migrancy has almost disappeared. Unauthorized newcomers, Mexican-born workers in the U.S. less than a year, were the flexible fresh blood of the farm work force until the 2008-09 recession.

{mosads}Farmers are responding to the end of unauthorized Mexico-U.S. migration with four “S” strategies: satisfy current workers to retain them, stretch them with mechanical aids that increase their productivity, substitute machines for workers, and supplement current workers with H-2A guest workers.


Seasonal farm work is generally a decade-long job rather than a lifetime. Training first-level supervisors to reduce favoritism and harassment and offering bonuses can keep current workers in farm work longer. Stretching farm workers involves machines to increase productivity. Most fruits and vegetables are over 90 percent water, and workers spend much of their time carrying harvested produce down ladders to bins or to the end of rows to receive credit for their work. Slow-moving conveyor belts in the fields reduce the need to carry produce, allowing workers to harvest faster and making jobs more attractive to older workers and women.

Satisfying and stretching are short-term options, while substitution and supplementing with guest workers are longer-term strategies. Rising minimum wages in many states, fewer flexible newcomers, and advances in mechanization have encouraged many farmers to invest in machines, which are doing more planting and pruning and are improving rapidly to harvest blueberries, peaches, and leaf lettuces.

The federal H-2A program allows farmers to recruit foreign farm workers to fill seasonal jobs after trying and failing to recruit U.S. workers and offering free housing and an Adverse Effect Wage Rate that averages $12 an hour. The number of H-2A jobs tripled to over the past decade to 200,000 in FY17 and may surpass the peak number of Braceros by 2025. Over 90 percent of H-2A guest workers are from Mexico.

Half of fresh fruit (including the most popular bananas) and a quarter of fresh vegetables available to Americans are imported, including over half of the fresh tomatoes. Mexico is the largest source of imported fruits and vegetables and the origin of over 90 percent of H-2A guest workers. The U.S. has a deficit in agricultural trade with Mexico, in part because Americans prefer Mexican tomatoes that are picked after they ripen to U.S. tomatoes that are often picked green and ripened after harvest. Efforts to reduce the trade deficit with Mexico in NAFTA renegotiations could slow the integration of the North American produce industry.

Farmers have long sought to eliminate requirements to try to recruit U..S workers, provide housing, and pay the super minimum AEWR wage. The House Judiciary Committee approved a bill in November 2017 that includes these farmer wishes. If enacted, the Agricultural Guestworker Act would likely accelerate the influx of farm guest workers, which could reduce support for the engineers and scientists developing machines to replace hand workers.

Agriculture has been at farm labor crossroads many times, asking who will pick the crops after the exclusion of the Chinese in the 1880s and the termination of the Bracero program in the 1960s. Today’s race in the fields will determine whether Americans will consume more imported produce or whether fruits and vegetables will continue to be grown in the U.S. and picked by machines or guest workers.

Philip Martin is professor emeritus of Agricultural and Resource Economics at UC-Davis and author of Merchants of Labor: Recruiters and International Labor Migration (Oxford, 2017).

Tags Agriculture Bracero program economy Farmworkers Foreign workers Guest worker program Immigration migrant workers North American Free Trade Agreement

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