Ag at large: Ag labor need as big as ever

California is one of several states that import a significant number of laborers to accomplish harvesting and other field and farm tasks. (Photo courtesy of dtracz/pixabay)

Along with its reputation for unsurpassed production of agricultural products, California is the country’s outright leader in agricultural labor.  Several recent regulations have complicated the category, but farmers are trying to keep up.

While attention is attracted to mechanization and technology applied to harvesting and other farm tasks, the simple conclusion is that many of the farm products produced in California are harvested by hand labor, just like the good old days.

Surprising to some, California is only one of several states that import significant number of laborers to accomplish harvesting and other field and farm tasks.  With that importation comes the need for housing, several other accommodations and rules and regulations. Circumstances have led to a labyrinth of federal directives that require constant attention.

A tabulation and analysis that paints the full picture of California’s farm labor issues appears in the most recent issue of ARE Update, the bi-monthly publication of the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics of the University of California, Davis.  The report was written by Philip Martin, an emeritus professor in the department.

He points out that the level of legal immigration remains at about a million people each year.  At the same time, he writes that illegal migration from Mexico to the United States has “slowed to a trickle.”  Instead, unauthorized border entries are often Central American families from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras applying for asylum.

But, straightforward importation of agricultural workers occurs within federal programs that have been in effect for several years, revised, updated, expanded and complicated as experience refines them.  Originally identified as the H-2a program, additions, revisions and deletions have elevated them through a fourth of the alphabet to H-2f.

Long-time California farmers who can remember operating through the mid-century bracero program are puzzled by the more recent complications and requirements of importation efforts.  A fleet of busses transported braceros from the Mexican border and beyond to rural California locations where they were housed, worked for specified periods and were then returned to Mexico.  Crops were harvested, workers made substantial money and took it home when the season ended.

With more recent programs H-2a through H-2f nothing is simple.  Employers must hire skilled record keepers to keep up with program revisions and requirements, and housing must meet stringent regulations of the importing state and the federal government before they can even request workers.

In Washington, where as many as 12,000 foreign workers are imported annually under H-2 programs for cherry, apple and pear harvest, a greedy state government last year announced that it expected employers to submit $500 for each foreign worker hired.  Employers banded together to resist the tax, and succeeded in delaying its imposition, but probably only for a year.

Professor Martin states that more than half of crop workers in the United States are unauthorized.  He points out that workers in the country without authorization are aging and tend to settle in one place with their families. He calls H-2 workers, who are mostly from Mexico, the “fresh blood” in the agricultural workforce.

While California farm employers hire the most agricultural workers, they employed only eight percent of the 240,000 imported through H-2a programs in 2018.  Georgia hired 13 percent, Florida 12 percent, Washington 10 percent and North Carolina nine percent.

Martin concludes his report by pointing out that a great deal of uncertainty persists about policies that affect labor costs.  He acknowledges that what farmers here and elsewhere hope for are clearer signals on the likely evolution of labor costs.  Good luck!