Many farmers are replacing migrant laborers with high-tech, high-wage productivity improvements, but President Donald Trump’s new agriculture secretary is reportedly lobbying to boost the food industry’s supply of cheap-labor illegal migrants.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told an audience on Friday that he’s pressing 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.
Sending the illegal-immigrant workers home “is not his focus nor will that be my focus,” Perdue added.
Breitbart has asked the department’s press office for clarification of Perdue’s comments.
Perdue has also used his authority as the new agriculture secretary to bring in a labor lawyer from the industry’s trade association, the American Farm Bureau Federation, according to Harvest Public Media. Perdue continued:
I’m hoping she can provide the president and his administration a blueprint and a program of how we can separate and divide and understand who are the [illegal] immigrants that are contributing to American society and contributing [to] putting … that food on the table and the fiber that we need for clothes.
Perdue’s intervention could preserve the huge supply of illegal labor used by farmers. But that intervention would also impose huge costs on farming communities, reverse the rising price of farm labor and reverse the come-from-behind shift by the American agricultural industry towards the high-tech, high-wage operations already developed by European, Asian and South American food industries.
Many farmers say they are now seeing the shift from labor-intensive agriculture to high-wage, high-tech agriculture.
In February, for example, a Kansas farmer selected by the National Milk Producers Federation and Dairy Farmers of America told the Senate’ agricultural committee how the shortage of imported workers had prompted hire to milk her cows with high-tech robots. “My family decided to address part of our labor needs by purchasing robotic milkers,” Lynda Foster testified. “These milkers allow me to spend time on other parts of my operation.”
“There a lot of other farmers going into robots … and a lot of them are smaller dairy farmers who want to maintain quality of life” Foster told Breitbart News. “I would say the labor [shortage] is the big thing, and for some people, it is quality of life — the young people of today just don’t want to work the same kind of hours as we grow up working,” she added.
“On Facebook groups, there’s a lot of young families that milk cows and they want help so they can attend kids’ school events… and they have trouble finding steady and dependable [labor], and a lot are starting to look towards robots,” she said, adding that the robots help increase milk production and improve the cows’ health.
At one regional farmers’ meeting, “about every time we sat down at a table, there was somebody with a robot,” she said.
In California, farmers are tearing out trees and vines so their farms can work with a new wave of robotic farm machinery, partly because the state government is mandating higher pay and shorter hours for farm workers. CaliforniaAgToday.com reported:
“I have a steady crew for watermelons, although with the new laws coming into effect, we are going to have to make some changes and mechanize a lot more of that harvest,” [Mark] Van Klaveren noted.
… “The only options we have are to mechanize or get out—one of the two. We can’t afford to produce at the same prices we’re getting right now with much higher labor costs. Some machinery out there can do what we need to do and we will look real hard to get some of that in our operation,” said Van Klavern.
Other farmers and food processors recently testified that they’re using more machinery instead of expensive labor to pick raising grapes, cotton, fruits and other products. “It’s coming. It’s just a matter of time,” said a farmer named Dave Cardozo told CaliforniaAgToday. “You’re going to see more mechanization,” he said, adding that he is also paying his workers more and trying to limit their work schedules to 40 hours per week.
In March, the Los Angeles Times reported;
Growers who can afford it have already begun raising worker pay well beyond minimum wage. Wages for crop production in California increased by 13% from 2010 to 2015, twice as fast as average pay in the state, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics…
Some farmers are even giving laborers benefits normally reserved for white-collar professionals, like 401(k) plans, health insurance, subsidized housing and profit-sharing bonuses. Full-timers at Silverado Farming, for example, get most of those sweeteners, plus 10 paid vacation days, eight paid holidays, and can earn their hourly rate to take English classes.
Farms are also changing to minimize labor costs. Growers who can’t raise wages are shedding employees and mechanizing, or switching to less labor-intensive crops. For example, Jeff Klein, a fourth-generation farmer in Stockton told the Los Angeles Times that “he’ll spend the next five years replacing his 1,000 acres of grapevines with almond and olive trees, which require a fraction of the human contact to grow.”
The market for farm labor is so tight that vineyards in Napa County are now paying farmworkers almost $42,000 year, and other farmers are testing robotic machinery being developed in Silicon Valley:
… strawberry growers in Ventura are experimenting with robots that plant seedlings, and growers in Central Coast counties are culling, weeding and even harvesting heads of lettuce with machines. At the outer edge, engineers are trying to teach machines to pick fruit.
Brad Goehring, a fourth-generation farmer, is re-engineering his vineyards so they can be harvested entirely by machines… “I think we can eliminate, I’m just guessing, 85% of the labor on these new vineyards,” he says, reducing pruning costs from $300 per acre, on average, to $80. He plans to keep spending more on machinery, like his $350,000 tractor-like vehicle that shakes grapes off the vine and catches them before they fall to the ground.
In Washington state, apple orchards are trying to automate amid the labor shortage, according to the Associated Press:
… President Donald Trump’s hard line against immigrants in the U.S. illegally has many farmers in the country looking for alternative harvest methods. Some have purchased new equipment to try to reduce the number of workers they’ll need, while others have lobbied politicians to get them to deal with immigration in a way that minimizes harm to their livelihoods.
“Who knows what this administration will do or not do?” said Jim McFerson, head of the Washington State Tree Fruit Research Center in Wenatchee. For farmers, “it’s a question of survival.”
… [Israel-based] FFRobotics is developing a machine that has three-fingered grips to grab fruit and twist or clip it from a branch. The machine would have between four and 12 robotic arms, and can pick up to 10,000 apples an hour, Kober said. One machine would be able to harvest a variety of crops, taking 85 to 90 percent of the crop off the trees, Kober said. Humans could pick the rest.
Even some Silicon Valley companies are trying to get into the farm-automation business, for example, by developing a robot apple-picker.
“The law of supply and demand doesn’t stop being true just because you’re talking about people,” George Borjas, a Harvard economist, told the Los Angeles Times. “[Farmers] have had an almost endless supply of low-skill workers for a long time, and now they are finding it difficult to transition to a situation where they don’t.”
Farms in South America, Asia, and Europe are already using much European and Asian technology to increase the productivity of their well-paid workers. In 2016, for example, according to Fortune magazine:
A Chilean farm said this week that it would install  milking robots at its farm of 6,500 cows, which it claims would make it the biggest robotic milking farm in the world. The claim could not be verified. After the installation, 4,500 cows will be milked by the machine, according to a spokesperson.
A Swedish dairy technology company called DeLaval built the 64 milking robots for the farm. Of those, 16 have been installed, which the farm said has resulted in a 10 % increase in milk production and an unspecified reduction in labor costs….
In February, a Japanese agriculture technology company called SPREAD said it would open an almost-all robot lettuce farm by mid-2017 where robots will handle many tasks like watering seedlings and harvesting lettuce.
Also, some U.S. entrepreneurs are bypassing the labor-intensive farm industry by growing high-value farm products inside city greenhouses, only a short commute from an unlimited supply of suburban workers. For example, in 2016, a company named Urban Seed began building a new climate-controlled greenhouse in Las Vegas where workers can quickly grow stacked layers of fresh herbs and high-value crops for nearby restaurants and shops. According to an NPR report:
In a 24-square-foot area, Wenman projects that Urban Seed will be able to grow more than 500 heads of lettuce in 30 days, compared with roughly 50 lettuce heads that might grow during that time on a traditional outdoor farm.
That number might sound hyperbolic, but it’s actually pretty conservative when you compare it to estimates for vertical indoor farms currently getting lots of buzz. In Newark, for example, AeroFarms claims per-square-foot yields that are 130 times those of field farms.
“In the same amount of space indoors, you can raise 10 to 100 times what you can do outdoors,” says Dr. Dickson Despommier, a professor emeritus at Columbia University and author of The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century.
Back in Washington, however, the established farm industry wants the federal government to continue the inflow of cheap field labor so it can minimize high-tech investment and labor costs.
In his first statement after being sworn on April 25, Perdue began championing the interests of the farm industry, not the industry’s employees, or rural town or the nation’s economic productivity. He declared “As secretary, I will champion the concerns of farmers, ranchers, foresters, and producers, and will work tirelessly to solve the issues facing our farm families.”
His four priorities, according to the statement, will be:
Perdue’s policies as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture will be guided by four principles which will inform his decisions. First, he will maximize the ability of the men and women of America’s agriculture and agribusiness sector to create jobs, to produce and sell the foods and fiber that feed and clothe the world, and to reap the earned reward of their labor … Second, he will prioritize customer service every day for American taxpayers and consumers … Third, as Americans expect a safe and secure food supply …. fourth, Perdue will always remember that America’s agricultural bounty comes directly from the land.
Perdue has a long career in the food industry. According to his April 25 statement.:
Perdue’s views on agriculture have always been shaped by his first-hand knowledge of all of its aspects, both as a farmer and as an agribusinessman. He appreciates the daily concerns and needs of American farmers, while also understanding the intricacies of global commodities markets. He is acknowledged as a national leader in agriculture, having served as a board member for the National Grain & Feed Association, and as President of both the Georgia Feed and Grain Association and the Southeastern Feed and Grain Association. Perdue has long-standing, close relationships with the leadership of the National Farm Bureau and has been recognized by the Georgia 4-H and FFA programs, among others, for his leadership in agriculture.
Throughout Perdue’s career in Georgia politics and agriculture, Georgia’s Latino population has grown from 109,000 in 1990 to 854,000 in 2017. In 2016, Trump won the state with just 51 percent of the vote.
Perdue’s new hire for the agriculture department is likely Kristi Boswell, who was a registered lobbyist and director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation. She argues that farms need to import more workers or else watch unpicked crops rot in the ground.
However, food prices show no increase from a shortage of labor. In fact, food prices are dropping as higher labor costs push the industry to use more machines. Breitbart reported in late April that:
Bloomberg’s was just one of many stories that appeared last year claiming that farms were suffering from a labor shortage and that crops were rotting in the fields. Many claimed that American households would pay higher prices for food if urgent action was not taken to relieve the alleged farm labor shortage.
Those predictions turned out to be very far off the mark. Prices paid for food purchased for American households declined in 2016, falling 1.3 percent below 2015 levels. It was the first annual decline in supermarket prices since 1967, according to the Department of Agriculture. The price of fresh fruit, arguably the most affected by temporary farm labor, rose 2.2 percent, just about equal to the 2.1 rise recorded in the Consumer Price Index.
Even as prices drop, farmers’ household incomes are expected to rise, according to Perdue’s agriculture department:
The median income of U.S. farm households increased steadily over 2010-14, reaching an estimated $81,637 in 2014. After dipping in 2015 to $76,735, median household income is forecast to rise over the next 2 years, reaching an expected $79,733 in 2017.
In 2016, farmers and food processors imported roughly 75,000 short-term H-2A visa workers to complement their workforce, half of whom are estimated to be illegal aliens. Their labor supply is also augmented by refugees from Somalia and other countries.
Many politicians quietly or openly support this flow of foreign labor to the old agriculture business. For example, in September 2016, Ryan told The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein that “what I’ve always believed is that you need to retool the legal system so that it fits the economy’s needs … transition our legal [immigration] system so that visas are given to what are needed for the economy. Do we have a shortage of dairy workers in western Wisconsin? Yes, we do. “
Back in 2013, Ryan told National Journal that “the dairy farmers in western Wisconsin are having a hard time finding anyone to help them produce their products, which are mostly cheese. If they can’t find workers, then they can’t produce, and we’ll end up importing … The flip side of the argument is: Just raise wages enough to attract people. But you raise wages too much in certain industries, then you’ll get rid of those industries, and we’ll just have to import.”
The food industry wants a steady supply of cheap foreign labor because many of the illegal immigrants hired by the food industry quickly quit those jobs and try to compete for blue-collar jobs in towns and cities around the nation. They quick leave the farms jobs because the wage rates are low, and they quickly leave the food-processing jobs — for example, at meatpacking plants — because the manual labor is tough, dangerous and eventually harmful to the migrants’ hands and backs.
High-wage Japan and European countries, however, are forced to use robots in their meatpacking plants.
The U.S. food industry’s demand for migrant workers largely created the nation’s population of roughly 11 million illegals, which has imposed huge costs on the rest of society. For example, rural towns have to police and aid the diverse migrants that are hired by slaughterhouses or dairy factories, and also have to accommodate their children — including many who do not speak English — in small-town schools that are trying to deliver a good education to the local children.
Nationally, the inflow of illegal and legal foreign labor annually shifts $500 billion from Americans wage-earners over to investors and Wall Street. The illegal immigration costs taxpayers cities and states more than $100 billion per year, according to the Federation for American Immigration Reform. Nationwide, roughly 10 percent of American “prime age” men, or 7 million men aged 25 to 54, have stayed out of the nation’s workforce of 160 million amid the glut of cheap immigrant labor. The working-age Americans are not trying to get jobs, and are not participating in the nation’s labor force, largely because of low wage rates, according to an August statement by Jason Furman, the chief economic advisor to former President Barack Obama. That huge population of non-working rural Americans has jump-started opioid epidemic.
Critics of cheap-labor immigration decry Perdue’s anti-technology pitch:
We tried to send warning B4. Sonny is a cheap labor, Big Ag amnesty dude. S. GA growers have same outlook here as they did in 1859. #gapol
— D.A. King (@DAKDIS) April 29, 2017
Meanwhile, Trump’s supporters have already begun protesting Perdue’s hire of the pro-migrant lobbyist: