(Oct. 5, PACKER WEB EXCLUSIVE) A Congressional hearing about the labor needs of agriculture illustrated the stark statistics that show how much producers rely on undocumented workers.

More than that, James Holt, economist at Pennsylvania State University, told the House Agriculture Committee on Oct. 4, said the cold facts reveal a system badly in need of comprehensive reform.

“We clearly can’t have effective enforcement without a guest worker program, “Holt said.” I do not speak lightly, nor engage in hyperbole, when I testify today that the U.S. agricultural industry is in the midst of a labor crises, the resolution of which will determine whether U.S. producers of fruits, vegetables, and horticultural and other specialty commodities are more than marginal participants in U.S. and global markets for the commodities they produce in future decades,’ he said.

Holt said the labor problems of U.S. agriculture have been “ignored and swept under the rug” for several decades.

“At a minimum, several hundred thousand new farm workers have illegally entered the United States to work on U.S. farms, and fill the jobs vacated several hundred thousand illegally present farm workers who have moved into the non-farm work force since the members of this Committee were last elected or re-elected,” he said.

More than 550,000 U.S. farmers hire workers to fill more than 3 million agricultural jobs each year, he said.

Because a high proportion of U.S. agricultural jobs are seasonal, the 3 million U.S. agricultural jobs each year are filled by a hired farm work force of about 2.5 million persons. Approximately 1.2 million of the non-casual hired farm work force is likely not authorized to work in the U.S.

Holt said experience at the field level shows close to 75% to U.S. farm workers are not legally entitled to work in the U.S., and almost all newcomers to seasonal agricultural work identify themselves as unauthorized workers.

“This means that for all practical purposes every new worker entering the U.S. hired crop work force is illegal,” he said.

Social Security Administration no-match statistics also show the high level of illegal alien employment in agriculture, he said. Agriculture, which accounts for only 1.2% of U.S. employment, accounts for 17% of all Social Security no-matches, more than any other sector of the U.S. labor force.