The better pickers earn more. Farm workers can earn more per hour picking apples than flipping burgers or stocking shelves in a big-box retail store. But like so many agricultural jobs, picking apples is highly seasonal. It is out in the weather, and it is demanding. Who is doing the work on the farm? Government statistics tell us that the workforce is over 80% foreign-born, and over half of farm workers are unauthorized. Private estimates run higher. Only
two percent come in through the existing H-2A program. While most employers meet their legal obligations when hiring, the realities I describe are well-documented. The late Dr. James S. Holt, a deeply respected expert in farm labor economics, provided extensive testimony on the agricultural labor crisis before the House Committee on Agriculture in October, 2007.
I have attached a copy of this important testimony to my own for the hearing record. So what does this all mean for U.S. jobs and rural communities? Statistically, we know that every harvest worker supports at least three full time jobs. Some are on the farm. More are off the farm, in ancillary industries from equipment sales to box makers to food processing to truckers to port workers handling exports of high-value crops. Rural communities and rural economies depend upon these jobs! But the jobs are tied to U.S. farm production, and if production moves to other nations, so too will these jobs. Their loss will be devastating and irreversible.
The threat is not hypothetical, it is real, and worsening in the face of Congressional inaction. In the 1950’s, colleagues tell me there was a thriving greenhouse vegetable industry southwest of Toledo, Ohio. It is gone, largely to Canada. Colleagues in the West report that at least 80,000 acres of high-value vegetable production has left southern Arizona and California for Mexico.
Florida tomatoes and citrus are leaving for Mexico and Brazil. In 2008, Texas A&M University noted that 77% of Texas vegetable producers surveyed had reduced the size or scope of their business due to lack of employees. One quarter reported moving some of their operations out of the U.S. Another third were considering such a move. China has requested access to our market for fresh apples and they are the world’s largest producer.