LANCASTER, Pa. — Attendance at the Ag Issues Forum last week at the Lancaster Farm and Home Center was at least double the usual turnout.
Michelle Landis, who helps organize and run the every-other-month forums for the ag committee of the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the committee hadn’t done anything in particular to attract a bigger crowd.
Attendance does vary, she said, depending on the topic, and the February focus on immigration proved to be more of a draw than usual.
Chamber President Jim Adams, who is also president and CEO of Wenger Feeds, introduced Steven Zahniser and Tom Hertz, both economists with the USDA’s Economic Research Service and longtime observers of the farm labor workforce.
In his introduction, Adams said he believes immigrant workers have been demonized in the press, but that those workers provide much-needed labor, which U.S. citizens are often unwilling to do.
Adams cited the recent case of a Washington apple grower who offered $150 a day to anyone willing to pick apples. That grower had no takers.
“Most of the workers who come to the U.S. from other countries just want to be here temporarily,” Adams said. “Then, they want to go back home to their families. We just want them to be here legally.”
There are about 153 million people in the entire U.S. labor pool, and less than a million of those are paid farmworkers.
In 2012, there were about 676,000 farm laborers and supervisors, and another 110,000 hired farm managers. Crop workers make up a large proportion of the entire farm labor pool, and about half the crop workers are in the country illegally.
One of Hertz’s more dramatic PowerPoint slides showed how huge a presence illegal workers are for some crops. A full 67 percent of the people who pick our fruits and nuts, for example, are in the U.S. illegally. And 97 percent of younger workers — those with less than two years experience — in the fruit industry are unauthorized. The overall labor force for vegetables is 61 percent illegal, and 90 percent of its less experienced workers are unauthorized.
Hertz said his and Zahniser’s work focused on workers who received paychecks, and they did not look at owner-operator, family farm operations that supply their own labor.
Real wages for farmworkers aren’t as dismal as some might think, he said, and they have actually risen in the past two decades.
“But farm wages are about as low as you can get in the U.S. economy, and they have plateaued in the last three or four years,” he said.
Farm wages in 2012 averaged just below $11 and hour, compared with leisure and hospitality workers who averaged just over $11, both of which were markedly less than the average $19.50 earned by all nonfarmworkers.
Mexican immigrants, both legal and illegal, are by far the largest group of foreign-born farmworkers. But there are signs, Hertz said, that the U.S. might be losing some of its appeal.
“Migration has slowed down,” he said, “and maybe even reversed.”
As reasons, Hertz cited wage stagnation, the U.S. recession, improving conditions in Mexico and the horrific violence that illegal immigrants chance when they cross the border. Those factors could even be heralding a farm labor shortage.
In his remarks, Zahniser discussed the immigration reform proposals currently being bandied about in Washington. A bipartisan group of U.S. senators has a proposal, as does the White House. They both address many of the same issues, and both would provide avenues for people here illegally to eventually acquire permanent residence status or full citizenship.
The fate of the current guest worker programs, notably the H2-A visa program, is unclear, according to Zahniser.
One of the long-standing objections to the H2-A program is that it is geared toward seasonal workers. That works for crops but not so well for dairy and other farm enterprises that need year-round help.
In a Q&A after Zahniser and Hertz concluded their remarks, Lisa Graybeal, a manager with her family’s dairy operation in Peach Bottom, Pa., asked if getting rid of illegal farmworkers would have a marked impact on retail food prices.
“The numbers are surprisingly small,” Hertz said, “even for fruits and vegetables, where labor accounts for only about 10 percent of the retail price. Fruits and veggies are just part of the food budget, and the food budget is only part of the household budget. So if farm wages doubled, a family might spend $100 a year more on fruits and vegetables. If you do the math, it’s not overwhelming.”
In a follow-up phone call after the forum, Graybeal said the National Milk Producers Federation is interested in seeing the H2-A or some other guest worker program expanded to include nonseasonal farmworkers.
Graybeal sits on the federation’s immigration task force, and is also on the Lancaster Chamber board. “Dairy could use year-round, full-time, foreign-born workers,” she said.
H2-A visas are generally good for less than a year. When the visa expires, the worker has to return to his or her home country for three months before applying for another H2-A.
A green card, which allows holders to work anywhere in the U.S., would be an ideal solution, but, according to Graybeal, getting a green card is complicated, time-consuming, costly and a drawn-out process that usually requires the expensive expertise of an immigration lawyer.