Agriculture companies in California are being forced to develop and deploy labor-saving machinery and techniques because reduced illegal immigration is allowing American farmworkers raise their poverty-level wages, according to Los Angeles Times.
But the double-dose of good news — more productive technology and higher American wages — is threatened by farm industry lobbyists who are pushing Congress to approve a much greater inflow of cheap-labor H-2A visa workers. An amendment approved last week would allow many more farm companies to ignore Americans workers and instead to hire cheap-labor from foreign-labor brokers.
According to the Los Angeles Times:
The $47-billion agriculture industry is trying to bring technological innovation up to warp speed before it runs out of low-wage immigrant workers.
California will have to remake its fields like it did its factories, with more machines and better-educated workers to labor beside them, or risk losing entire crops, economists say…
“We’ve been masking this problem all these years with a system that basically allowed you to accept fraudulent documents as legal, and that’s what has been keeping this workforce going,” said Steve Scaroni, whose Fresh Harvest company is among the biggest recruiters of farm labor. “And now we find out we don’t have much of a labor force up here, at least a legal one.”
One example of the new technology is a tractor-towed device that can automatically thin clumps of new lettuce plants, which allows the surviving plants to grow larger. The device is being developed by a California firm, Blue River Technology, and it can replace 20 workers equipped with ancient weed-cutting hoes.
The sector’s increased focus on machinery is politically important because farm companies have provided an employment magnet for millions of illegal immigrants since the 1980s. Many of those illegals subsequently migrated to U.S. towns and cities, where their extra labor reduced Americans’ wages and salaries, and their American-citizen children have swept the GOP out of power throughout California. Experts suggest that half of the industry’s workforce of 2.5 million are illegal immigrants.
The industry’s long-standing dependence on low-tech cheap labor is now proving to be a huge business liability because of growing international competition.
Outside the United States, farm companies are combining good management with improving technology and ultra-cheap labor in Mexico and other southern countries. For example, California’s asparagus industry is heading for elimination because it has not developed the technology to replace their increasingly expensive workers, according to the Los Angeles Times:
Last year, farmers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta area harvested only 8,000 acres of the signature spear, which is depicted on water tanks and town emblems throughout the region. In 2000, they harvested 37,000 acres, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“We’re headed toward zero pretty soon,” said Cherie Watte Angulo, executive director of the California Asparagus Commission.
The foreign competition will hurt other Americans sectors as foreign agriculture companies combine technology with cheap labor. In Chile, for example, a dairy farm has bought 64 European-designed robots to allow 4,500 cows to milk themselves without the direct aid of farm hands. In the United States, the largest order for cow-milkers is only 24 robots.
International agriculture companies are also bringing their better foreign techniques into the United States to compensate for rising U.S. labor prices, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Driscoll’s, which grows [straw]berries in nearly two dozen countries and is the world’s top berry grower, already is moving its berries to table-top troughs, where they are easier for both human and machines to pick, as it has done over the last decade in Australia and Europe.
“We don’t see — no matter what happens — that the [U.S.] labor problem will be solved,” said Soren Bjorn, president of Driscoll’s of the Americas.
On July 18, the subcommittee which appropriates money for the Department of Homeland Security adopted an amendment which would allow all agricultural companies — including dairy companies — to hire H-2A visa workers for year-round work. The amendment was approved by a voice vote, so hiding which Republicans and Democrats voted for the wage-cutting proposal.
The amendment was proposed by GOP Rep. Dan Newhouse, who owns a 600-acre farm which produces hops, tree fruit, grapes, and alfalfa. Before being elected to Congress, he was president of an industry group, the Hop Growers of America, and was director of the state’s agriculture department for Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire.
“Today, large segments of American agriculture face a critical lack of workers, a problem made worse by the fact that the H-2A program is not working for all of agriculture,” said a statement from Newhouse. He continued:
Modern agriculture techniques that have become less ‘seasonal’ demand an update to this program because many segments of the agriculture industry are either no longer seasonal or have multiple harvests, one after the other. H-2A must be made more workable for farmers, and my amendment clarifies that all of agriculture may use H-2A so it operates effectively as our nation’s Ag guest worker program. My amendment does not change the time limits a worker employed through the H-2A program can stay in the U.S., and it would not change the requirements on farmers to show they are first hiring domestic workers. This amendment is a small starting point of relief we can provide our farmers who need access to workers.
In April, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told an audience that he’s pressing President Donald Trump to allow farmers and food processors to keep employing cheap illegal-alien manual labor. Trump “understands that there are … undocumented immigrant laborers, out here on the farms, many of them that are doing a great job, contributing to the economy of the United States,” Perdue said April 28, according to a report in Harvest Public Media.
Read the Los Angeles Times story here.