Robots are replacing unskilled migrants in American farm jobs, but farmers still want skilled migrants to operate the robots, says the president of a major farm advocacy group.
“While advances in robotics have replaced some farm jobs, we need skilled employees to manage that equipment,” said Zippy Duvall, the president of the American Farm Bureau Federation. In a February 3 post on the groups’ website, he wrote:
U.S. agriculture needs a flexible guest-worker program that allows contract and at-will employment options that work for both seasonal and year-round needs on the farm. We also need to make sure wage requirements take into account the economic conditions of the agriculture industry and enable farms to remain viable.
The “guest worker” program cited by Duvall refers to the H-2A program. Democrats are signaling they will expand it — if farmers persuade GOP legislators to OK an amnesty to lock in Democratic political and economic dominance for many years.
Duvall wants to make a deal, saying:
The American Farm Bureau is ready to work with the Administration and Congress to bring these long overdue reforms to our guest worker program to help provide long-term security to our employees, farm businesses and the rural economy.
That is a political problem for the many GOP members who represent the farming districts, where the interest of farm employers in cheap labor is deeply contradictory to the interest of many wage-earning voters, as well as myriad local retailers, real estate people, and other professionals who eventually receive a hare of those wages. The tension has helped torpedo prior cheap-labor deals that were pushed by Democrats and some Republicans.
“Legislators need to balance the interests within the agricultural sector — the employers’ desire to maximize profits compared to the numerous Americans who are seeking a fair wage,” said Rob Law, the legislative and regulatory director at the Center for Immigration Studies.
Guest workers “create an artificial bubble during the growing season, and what is left behind is a ghost town of Americans who have no jobs, no opportunities. And, frankly, no, town.”
Big, automated, corporate farms have enough profits to pay their workers, he said, adding:
… it’s a permanent financial redistribution away from rural America, into foreign countries across the world by use of guest worker programs .. they’re choosing the course of least resistance, out of convenience and do not to care about the repercussions to the local community in which these farm companies actually are doing business.
But some GOP legislators — such as orchard owner Rep. Dan Newhouse ( R-WA) — have long supported easier access to migrant labor.
The H-2A program has grown rapidly over the last several years as farmers say they face a shortage of Americans willing to work in unmechanized and unautomated fruit picking and stoop labor jobs.
But alongside the Mexican and Central American stoop labor, farmers are using the program to import skilled machine operators from countries such as South Africa instead of recruiting, training, and paying young Americans.
The H-2A program allows the owners of large farms to escape the economic pressure of the United States’ labor market, where CEOs must bargain over wages and conditions with legally equal Americans. Those Americans are free to demand a higher share of profits, quit their contracts, demand benefits such as healthcare, or take time off to care for their children.
But the farm managers have far more control over the cheap and compliant H-2A workers — as well as J-1 visa workers who also serve as machine operators.
The foreign workers cannot shift employers or demand higher wages. Their families and other personal distractions are thousands of miles away, usually in homelands where U.S. contracts are a godsend from local economic and political pressure. The visa workers do not have to be paid in the off-seasons, and they provide companies with just-in-time and very disposable farm labor.
HOPEWELL – A Cumberland County nursery was ordered to pay more than $143,000 in back wages and penalties following a federal Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division investigation that found it paid foreign workers better than U.S. citizens.
The H-2A labor also includes skilled operators for combine harvesters, planter, weeders, sprayers, tractors, trucks — and for the next wave of automated, robotic farming machinery.
On January 28, President Joe Biden’s deputies lifted a disease travel ban that barred workers from South Africa — and which would have forced farmers to hire American operators.
Hayandforage.com explained the value of the South African machineoperators for large farms:
[Mike] Brosnan’s son-in-law, one of his daughters, and his wife work with him on the [South Dakota] farm to grow about 2,500 acres of alfalfa and 5,500 acres of corn, soybeans, and occasionally winter wheat. Each growing season requires extra workers to get the job done.
Over the years, the American workers who responded to Brosnan’s annual “Help Wanted” ads repeatedly moved on to new opportunities, leaving him continually searching for help.
“Generally, I don’t receive any applications from American workers,” Brosnan said. “The South African workers we’ve brought over differ from some of employees we’ve had in the past in that they are dependable. They always show up on time and hardly complain about anything. They’re here to earn money, and they know how to hustle. There’s always an exception out there, but most of them have a very good work ethic.”
The South Africans are “desperate” for the work, said Manuel Fick, a youth African immigrant who delivers South African labors to American farmers.
AgWeb.com reported January 29:
Agriculture last year brought in 275,430 H-2A guest workers, of which equipment operators accounted for 15,326 positions. South Africa accounted for roughly 5,000 H-2A workers, the vast majority of which were equipment operators.
“Overall, it’s not a lot of people — 5,000 people — that come over here from South Africa, but those 5,000 cover a lot of acres for farmers,” Tom-Rowland said. “That’s really difficult when farmers are making specific plans for different crops and they don’t have the staffing required for them.”
The Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation sent a letter to the state’s congressional delegation as well, stressing the importance of the South African guest workers. The group stated that roughly 800 guest workers from South Africa work on Mississippi farm operations.
Kassi Tom-Rowland, who does human resources for Tom Farms in Leesburg, Indiana, said early Thursday that her family’s farm is planning on four equipment operators to help with the farm, with the first pair of workers set to come in late February. The workers will work the entire cropping season for Tom Farms from planting to harvest. Essentially, the South African H-2A workers make up roughly 25% of the farm’s labor during the crop season.
[Elizabeth] Jack said the H-2A placement service her farm uses had told her as many as 190 farms just in Mississippi had gone through that placement service this year seeking H-2A workers from South Africa to work machinery.
The labor outsourcing is great for South African workers. Businessinsider.co.za reported February 3 that recruiters are offering visa workers $2,000 a month for U.S jobs: “We are looking for people who have agricultural experience in machines, like combines, tractors, grain carts and also truck drivers,” explains Celia van Heerden of Golden Opportunities International.
The farm companies are following the example set by other powerful industry groups who cannot export their work to Asian or Mexican factories.
Fortune 500 corporation and Silicon Valley tech firms use the H-1B and OPT programs to import their own workforce. The healthcare sector is importing many of its workers via green cards and the J-1 program. The restaurant sector and construction industry, hotels, and cleaning services legally outsource their hiring to legal subcontractors who hire illegals.
The government-delivered labor also offers farmers a temporary escape from the grinding competition in the international food sector. Outside of the United States, new generations of skilled farmers are combining very cheap labor, cheap technology, with international transport and marketing to grab market share from America’s once-dominant farmers.
The competition leaves U.S. farmers will less cash as they compete for labor in a nation where frame jobs are derided by the elite urban managers of the cultural industries — and are also stigmatized by their own illegitimate use of illegal foreign labor.
The H-2A program is intended to tenure that “this country has what it needs in terms of our vital agricultural infrastructure,” said Joe Edlow, the former acting chief of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Srrvices agency. “But if these employers are using it in a way to manipulate the program, and to control workers and abuse the program, instead of hiring willing American workers — especially during COVID — well, then that’s not the way that the program was meant to be.” he said to Breitbart News February 9.
Farm employers “have come to rely on them and trust them — and they are admirable people, they do a good job. But that’s not the point. The point is, they are here to do a job and. if that’s no longer the case that they’re needed for that job then, frankly, I question whether an H-2A petition should have even been approved.”
A 2017 poll sponsored by the American Farm Bureau Federation and National Farmers Union revealed that 74% of farmers and farm workers say they have been directly affected by the opioid epidemic. Results from the poll also revealed that 3 in 4 farmers said it was easy to access large amounts of opioids without a prescription, and only 1 in 3 rural adults said it would be easy to access addiction treatment.
The shocking numbers resulted in the American Farm Bureau Foundation along with the National Farmers Union creating the Farm Town Strong initiative, to help farm families overcome drug addiction with strong farmer-to-farmer support.
“We’ve known for some time that opioid addiction was a serious problem in farm country, but numbers like these are heartbreaking,” Duvall said in 2017. “Opioids have been too easy to come by and too easy to become addicted to.
In his February 3 post, Duvall complained about the difficulty of recruiting American:
Even with competitive wages and added benefits, there is less interest in farm jobs as folks leave rural areas and are more removed from the farm. Meanwhile the current farm workforce is aging, and farmers are struggling to keep up with filling positions. Margins are slim even in the best seasons on the farm, and farmers can find it hard to stay competitive with other industries and lower-priced agricultural imports.
It’s time we find a solution that provides farmers, our employees and our families the stability we all need to keep America’s farms growing.
Duvall did not respond to questions from Breitbart News.
“My advice for all politicians,” said Law, “is that you should advocate for the American people because those are the actual voters, and there are more voters than there are donors.”
“The agricultural sector is just saying that Americans need not apply — go figure out something else,” said Law.
Meanwhile, the U.S. tech sector is developing, testing, and retesting a new generation of labor-saving, productivity-boosting, farm automation th5 reduce the need for stoop labor: