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Farmworker decline, higher wages trigger specialty crop mechanization

Mechanized harvester
More mechanized machinery is expected in the specialty crop industry, even in areas where mechanization was once thought impossible to achieve.
The decline in the number of Mexican workers working in U.S. agriculture is largely due to Mexico’s improved economy, plus Mexicans staying home due to the financial fallout from the U.S.’s Great Recession, says USDA-Economic Research Service economist Tom Hertz.

Tom Hertz is a federal government data collector who studies and analyzes numbers to grasp a real-time view of the ever changing U.S.-Mexico farmworker-immigration issue.

Hertz, a farm labor economist with the USDA’s Economic Research Service in Washington, DC, shared a hard drive worth of interesting farm labor data with farmers, including where farmworker numbers and wages are headed in the future, during a Jan. 9 immigration workshop at the 98th American Farm Bureau Federation Annual Convention in Phoenix, Ariz.

The farm economist discussed the decline in recent years in the number of Mexican workers working in U.S. farm fields – legally and illegally. The decline is largely due, Hertz says, to Mexico’s improved economy; and Mexicans staying home due to the financial fallout from the U.S.’s Great Recession.

The end result is fewer available workers, a growing threat to U.S. farmers who rely on farmworkers to plant, tend, and harvest crops. Hertz sees the U.S. fruit and vegetable industry as the agricultural sector which could be hurt the most by reduced farmworker numbers.

Worker wages

Hertz also discussed general labor wages during and after the recession. During the U.S.’s financial slowdown, wages paid to workers were tight. This was not because of a slowdown in agriculture, Hertz noted. “Agriculture powered through the recession quite well.”

Tightened purse strings were common in non-farm industries, including construction, which employ the same basic type of workers as agriculture. From 2008 to 2010, wages for these workers rose 3 percent to 4 percent annually.

Since the Great Recession, Hertz says wages for farm labor contractors and crew leaders have grown about 7 percent per year. Overall wage growth for general farmworkers has climbed 4.5 percent average annually over the last four-and-a-half years. Wages for farm management-type services are nearly 6 percent higher.

This wage data is from the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages – or QCEW – gathered by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Farmers’ response

With farm wages on the uptick, what are farmers doing in response to higher wages? They are using the H-2A program, Hertz says, noting a 106 percent increase in national H-2A certifications by the Department of Labor since 2001.

Workers certified in fiscal year 2016 grew to 165,000 H-2A workers, up from 80,000. Certifications have doubled since 2011 in Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, California, Arizona, and Washington.

In addition, farmers are turning more to mechanization where possible.

Hertz says, “They (farmers) keep saying this crop cannot be mechanized and that crop can’t be mechanized. Sure enough a few years later someone figures out a way to do it. I expect that will continue.”

“Partial mechanization” is another way farmers can deal with the labor shortfall-wage increase, including the use of partial hydraulic platforms in orchards where farmworkers don’t have to climb up and down ladders, or to shorten the distance that workers carry heavy produce.

Hertz says partial mechanization is on the rise, helping farmers embrace productivity while containing labor costs.

“Interestingly, farmers as always are endlessly inventive and they have managed through changing productivity for finding ways to increase productivity,” Hertz said.

Immigrant labor

The Mexican immigrant population in the U.S. began to increase about 1970 – rising from around 1 million to 13 million. Hertz says the number peaked in 2007, and has since declined steadily to about 11.7 million today – these Mexican-born individuals living in the U.S. either legally, illegally, employed, or unemployed.

Unauthorized Mexican immigrants in the U.S. peaked at around 6.9 million in 2007. The number has fallen to about 5.8 million, although Hertz says the decline may have stabilized.

According to a National Agricultural Statistics Service survey, about 50 percent of all farmworkers are undocumented. Certain crops have higher and lower numbers of undocumented workers, including the fruit industry where survey results suggest that about 97 percent of the workforce is undocumented.

Hertz noted this figure is solely based on growers who voluntarily returned the completed survey. Hertz said the grain industry has fewer unauthorized workers.

Aging workforce

Overall, farmworkers are getting older as fewer young workers enter the farm workforce. Older farmworkers are working longer. Those 55 or older represent about 14 percent of all farmworkers, up from 11 percent. This means the farmworker experience level is increasing which actually benefits crop agriculture.

Job tenure for a farmworker working for a single employer has increased from six to seven years. There are no significant changes in the level of education or the English language speaking ability of workers.

The number of farmworkers who are settling down and staying in one area has risen from 74 percent to 84 percent.

Future crop prices

Hertz briefly discussed where crop prices to the farmer may head for fruit, tree nuts, vegetables, and melons. Data suggests a continued upward price trend for fruit. Prices for vegetables and melons could be more volatile.

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