Bitter Harvest: U.S. Farmers Blame Billion-Dollar Losses on Immigration Laws

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Scott Olson / Getty Images

A migrant worker harvests watermelon from an irrigated farm field in the drought-stricken town of Vincennes, Ind., on July 18, 2012

Ralph and Cheryl Broetje rely on roughly 1,000 seasonal workers every year to grow and pack more than 6 million boxes of apples on their farm along the Snake River in eastern Washington. It’s a custom they’ve maintained for over two decades. Recently, though, their efforts to recruit skilled labor, mostly undocumented immigrants, have come up woefully short despite intensive recruitment efforts in an area with high rates of unemployment.

The Broetjes and an increasing number of farmers across the country say that a complex web of local and state anti-immigration laws account for acute labor shortages. With the harvest season in full bloom, stringent immigration laws have forced waves of undocumented immigrants to flee certain states for more-hospitable areas. In their wake, thousands of acres of crops have been left to rot in the fields, as farmers have struggled to compensate for labor shortages with domestic help.

“The enforcement of immigration policy has devastated the skilled-labor source that we’ve depended on for 20 or 30 years,” said Ralph Broetje during a recent teleconference organized by the National Immigration Forum, adding that last year Washington farmers — part of an $8 billion agriculture industry — were forced to leave 10% of their crops rotting on vines and trees. “It’s getting worse each year,” says Broetje, “and it’s going to end up putting some growers out of business if Congress doesn’t step up and do immigration reform.”

(MORE: Why Undocumented Workers Are Good for the Economy)

Roughly 70% of the 1.2 million people employed by the agriculture industry are undocumented. No U.S. industry is more dependent on undocumented immigrants. But acute labor shortages brought on by anti-immigration measures threaten to heap record losses on an industry emerging from years of stiff foreign competition. Nationwide, labor shortages will result in losses of up to $9 billion, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.

In Arizona, Nan Walden’s complaints mirror those of the Broetjes. Walden is vice president of the family-owned Farmers Investment Co., the largest grower and processor of pecans in the world, with 6,000 acres (2,500 hectares) of farmland in the Santa Cruz Valley, 35 miles (56 km) from the U.S.-Mexico border. Walden says the state system in place for luring seasonal workers is wholly inefficient and adds that Arizona’s infamous SB1070 immigration law has only compounded the problem, creating a climate of fear for Arizona employers and employees. “This has led to people leaving our state, going to other states without these ambiguous clouds and legal sanctions hanging over employers’ and employees’ heads,” says Walden.

Farming operations nationwide, from New York to Georgia to California, are reeling from similar labor shortages despite offering domestic workers competitive packages that include 401(k) plans and health insurance. Almost in unison, farmers complain that even when they are able to lure domestic workers to what often amounts to high-skilled, grueling work, it’s not long before they abandon the job.

North Carolina, whose four main crops are valued at $2 billion, has seen its labor supply vanish since nearby Alabama and South Carolina enacted restrictive immigration laws. “Clearly, immigration reform is as much a federal issue as maintaining our military or managing our money supply,” says Larry Wooten, president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau. “And this state-by-state regulation, with hyperenforcement, is putting pressure on farming operations here in North Carolina and across the country.”

(MORE: We Are Americans — Just Not Legally)

With the federal government sitting on the sidelines, some state legislatures in response to that pressure have started to consider enacting guest-worker programs, often after heavy lobbying from agricultural and business groups. Utah, for example, recently approved a program that, starting this year, will allow undocumented immigrants to work in the state legally as long as they pass background checks.  The measure, though, is subject to federal approval.

Several other states, including California, Oklahoma and Vermont, have considered similar legislation. In Texas last year, Republicans signed off on a party platform that calls for a national guest-worker program. And just before the GOP convention in August, the Republican National Committee approved a platform on immigration that calls for a guest-worker program.

“We feel strongly that there has never been a greater need for federal leadership for immigration reform,” says Walden. “The United States farmer is still the most efficient in the world, and if we want to be in charge of our food security and our economy and add favorably to our balance of payments, we need to support a labor force for agriculture.”

272 comments
bmgp778
bmgp778

This claim could be due to the increase the significant number of farms in town who claim the distinct rights. I'm indefernce between the discussion. 

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Duwitmu
Duwitmu

They farmers need to offer more money. Risk management. Enterprise Risk. That's how supply and demand works. I know the farmers would like slave labor like in the 1800s, but those days are over.

Duwitmu
Duwitmu

What is for now?  Tas Batik. Dompet Batik. Fed is not importing enough legal workers. For decades farm employers got all the workers and none were illegals.  

justinguru
justinguru

 Well! in my  point of view, the farmers need to offer more money. That's how supply and demand works. I know the farmers would like slave labor like in the 1800s, but those days are over...

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Arts
Arts

When the demand decrease, people look for reason. I

lissaneor
lissaneor

Before reading the article i am  little confusion about that what is the relation between Farmers and immigration laws. but after reading your article i must say authorities have to consider all the options while making the laws its not all about make and implemnet its about care others while making it. Its like when a printer maker never considers papers it can't be improvise. : http://printer-offline.com/what-to-do-when-a-network-printer-goes-offline/

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TedTheObserver
TedTheObserver

Correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't rising food prices the cause of all the revolts we're seeing around the world?

Eric Lund
Eric Lund

For decades farm employers got all the workers and none were illegals.  What now?  Fed is not importing enough legal workers. 

WeimMom
WeimMom

Check out www.theycometoamerica.com  read the reviews from many dealing with the illegal alien takeover in their cities, ridiculous to have to speak Spanish to get a job in the USA!  One reviewer wrote how they've devalued his Houston TX home, came home one day to see a Mexican herding goats down the street.....

WeimMom
WeimMom

My city is FULL of illegals, not only are they taking the jobs many low skilled, retired, disabled and unemployed need, they are taking up all the affordable housing. 

They come into major retailer, use their food stamps amp; WIC, hold up the line knowing they will be allowed to keep the 'extra' products not allowed on the taxpayer vouchers, they go to the money center sending their money to Mexico!

I would definitely pay more for produce if it meant following the very laws that make America great!

smashdivisions
smashdivisions

time ragazine, with the usual "sky-is-falling/we-love-illegals" article. so THIS year will be the year that fruit and veg prices will hike up because of a "labor shortage", right?... even though agribusiness profits are INCREASING annually. sorry "farmers", we don't believe you!

A Lloyd Flanagan
A Lloyd Flanagan

Funny, these guys seemed just fine with the situation when they had large numbers of people who worked hard for low pay and couldn't go to OSHA when there were problems. Somebody cut off their supply of oppressed workers, and now it's a crisis? Welcome to the party, guys. If you'd pushed for a rational, fair immigration policy for your workers years ago you'd have some credibility now.

keithm1295
keithm1295

Mr. "JOE"----

     Be careful please on what you SURMISE.  Farmers are under specific legal limitations---they can ask for only 2 types of identification and are BARRED from questioning the identification they are handed by the potential worker.  Farmers can (and are) sued by the Federal Government if the question the legitimacy of what they are handed.   As a farmer, I really have no good way to know.  So talk about these workers as "falsely documented" rather than in terms of  whether I have any true legal ability to determine their legal status. Keith

47wing
47wing

As a Texas road construction super once said to me - "Those Mexican boys can go all day long on their tortillas and tacos, rain or shine. Our boys would not last till breakfast time". 

Sorry people. If you like your food cheap and lawns mowed, you have to bear with the underground economy of undocumented workers - I will not call them illegal - going and may be even support it.

traz569
traz569

 Does Washington state have anti-immigrant laws?  I've never heard of

them from this very liberal state?  Seems to me, that the author's

reasoning would suggest that Washington would be a beneficiary of the

laws of the anti-immigrant states as illegals from those states would

have moved to illegal-friendly Washington.  I don't think we can blame

"anti- illegal-immigrant" laws for Washington's failure to find

workers. 

The author didn't mention the average amount a worker

makes, nor did he give any specifics about these generous benefits

packages that pickers supposedly receive.  He's got to be kidding. 

Those brutal jobs should get the equivalent of $30 an hour.   They don't

pay anywhere near that.  Raise the pay to justly compensate workers

rather than flooding our country with low-skilled workers (no that

doesn't mean we will pay 3 times more for food.  It might be ten percent

more at most.)

traz569
traz569

Does Washington state have anti-immigrant laws?  I've never heard of them from this very liberal state?  Seems to me, that the author's reasoning would suggest that Washington would be a beneficiary of the laws of the anti-immigrant states as illegals from those states would have moved to illegal-friendly Washington.  I don't think we can blame "anti- illegal-immigrant" laws for Washington's failure to find workers. 

The author didn't mention the average amount a worker makes, nor did he give any specifics about these generous benefits packages that pickers supposedly receive.  He's got to be kidding.  Those brutal jobs should get the equivalent of $30 an hour.   They don't pay anywhere near that.  Raise the pay to justly compensate workers rather than flooding our country with low-skilled workers (no that doesn't mean we will pay 3 times more for food.  It might be ten percent more at most.)

RobertSF
RobertSF

They farmers need to offer more money. That's how supply and demand works. I know the farmers would like slave labor like in the 1800s, but those days are over.

radsenior
radsenior

Acute farm labor shortages in the nation? Where are the laborer's? The radical right-wing have placed everything they could in their way to stymie immigration, legal or otherwise. The growing Hispanic/Latino population is swiftly becoming the giant Socio-politico-Economic power house to court. Many are conservative in nature, God-fearing family-oriented and those principles make them formidable and in need of careful wording in political speeches. It is not just the Puerto Rican community, but others like those from Central America and Mexican's who come to help harvest in the fields. TEA-Republican want their two-tiered "Dream Act" as put forth by Marco Rubio while others abuse their labor in the fields or construction sites. The cries from eastern Washington, Arizona, New York, Georgia and other farm communities wanting undocumented to do field work, as American laborers will not stoop down that far to earn a living. North Carolina, South Carolina and Alabama will suffer the same resulting from the current and previous Congress' inaction on immigration reform. The original "Dream Act" had been discussed and adopted ready to present to the Senate and passed to the president and the Republican's failed to bring it forward in 2010. The Congressional failures have exacerbated and already contentious issue and localities around the nation took it upon themselves to legislate locally. Let's all remember Paul Ryan is of the same caliber as Todd Akin, Eric Cantor and others of scarlet (R) fame. The scarlet (R) has replaced the unused (T) for TEA party radicals with confrontation on their minds. America needs change from the Gangnam style dancing in Washington over the budget and address immigration, the budget, taxation, women health issues and the upcoming sequestration which is due to occur starting January 1st 2013.

NM156
NM156

Farmers have a shortage because they expanded their operations based on cheap slave labor. They have nerve to pretend agriculture and prices are being affected by this so-called shortage.

ekaneti
ekaneti

Im glad to see that 90% of the posters here havent fallen for the propaganda of the farmer industry and Time magazine

ekaneti
ekaneti

I have no sympathy for any business owner whose business plan relies on paying below market wages. Those farmers should either pay higher wages, or their ag production should move to other countries our they should mechanize and use capital to replace labor. 

Shimmana
Shimmana

It is a sad fact that most Americans are not willing to do the slogging field work that immigrant workers have done for so long. Now we will all pay the price for the loss of those able and willing hands.

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Shimmana
Shimmana

You obviously are not friends with farmers who have had this problem.

NM156
NM156

Your farmer friends shouldn't be expanding their farms with the help of slave labor. Tell your farmer friends we want most of their profits to pay for illegals' huge public costs. Farmers should find another way to make a living if they can't go without illegal labor.

Heterotic
Heterotic

It is not a question as to who has this problem, it is one of who pays for it. These farm workers have children who will never work on the farm and often are not literate in English. Who pays for their schooling or medical care? How is the small farm any different than any other small business that goes under, or an individual worker who gets laid off?