Washington Post: Farm Industry Is Being Forced to Replace Illegal Workforce

Migrant workers harvest strawberries at a farm near Oxnard, Calif. Ventura County is one of two counties where labor organizers hope to get a Bill of Rights passed to protect farm workers from abuse and wage theft.
Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images
NEIL MUNRO

American farm companies are gradually replacing their illegal migrant workforce with machinery and with legal temporary workers, according to the Washington Post.

This shift is a win for President Donald Trump’s “Hire American” policy because it helps raise Americans’ productivity and wealth. The shift also lowers the annual flow of illegal migrants through the farm industry and into U.S. towns, cities, and politics.

“Amid an intractable debate over immigration and border security, America’s labor force is quietly being transformed, as many employers see no choice but to shift from illegal to legal labor,” the Washington Post reported February 21. “For the White House, that might be a triumph. But for the agriculture industry, the impact is acute. Each year, its labor force dwindles.”

Agriculture companies are now replacing many of their illegals — estimated to number about 1 million — with a mix of Americans, American-made machinery, and temporary workers imported via the federal H-2A visa-worker program.

The paper reported February 21:

With the election of Trump, employers said they knew that finding undocumented workers would probably become even more difficult. One Washington state farmer said he watched as his entire pool of undocumented workers crossed the border into Canada after Trump’s inauguration, fearing deportation. Another farmer, failing to find domestic workers in 2017, formed a partnership with a local prison, hiring detainees to work the fields as part of a voluntary work program.

Farm companies are importing more temporary visa workers via the H-2A program. In 2016, farm companies hired 165,000 temporary workers via the H2A program. In 2018, the number rose to 242,000 H-2A workers, who are expected to return home after 10 months of work.

But many farmers complain the H-2A workers are too expensive and have pushed Congress to create an “H-2C” program to deliver cheaper farm workers. That lobbying push failed in 2018, forcing farms back towards the H-2A program and greater use of machines.

Amid the labor difficulties, some farms even began to hire Americans. The February 21 article noted that:

“Basically, we pretty much gave up,” said Don Hartman, a vegetable farmer in Deming, N.M. Instead of hiring laborers with the H-2A program to replace undocumented workers, he now tries to make do with the legal workers he has used for years.

A February 17 article by the Washington Post also showed how the huge and profitable strawberry industry is being pushed to develop machines which can replace strawberry-picking migrants:

“The labor force keeps shrinking,” said Gary Wishnatzki, a third-generation strawberry farmer. “If we don’t solve this with automation, fresh fruits and veggies won’t be affordable or even available to the average person.”

But automating the strawberry picking is a difficult technology task — especially because migrants do the work rapidly, cheaply, and carefully to prevent damaging the delicate strawberries. The Washington Post article described field tests with a robot named “Harv”:

During a test run last year, Harv gathered just 20 percent of strawberries on every plant without mishap. This year’s goal: Harvest half of the fruit without crushing or dropping any. The human success rate is closer to 80 percent, making Harv the underdog in this competition.

One Harv is programmed to do the work of 30 people. The machine hovers over a dozen rows of plants at the same time, picking five strawberries every second and covering eight acres a day.

The Harv robot is being developed on a shoestring budget, which suggests that the strawberry industry prefers to use migrant farmworkers instead of machines.

That reliance on migrants creates a risk for the strawberry industry because it is facing a new competitor — companies which grow fruit in giant warehouses, using high-tech lights and a small staff of well-paid workers. This vertical farming industry is expanding by selling expensive food – such as herbs and lettuce — to urban consumers.

Apple farms in Oregon are also looking to machines to curb their reliance on migrants to pick the most profitable fruit:

The two articles in the Washington Post are notable because they recognize the impact of cheap-labor migration on U.S. technology and economics.

Most articles by establishment media outlets focus on the demands of U.S. employers and of foreign migrants and ignore the deeply damaging impact illegal and legal migration on Americans’ wages, salaries, productivity, and technological development.

For example, many major U.S. companies ally with foreign outsourcing firms to keep at least 1.5 million foreign college-graduates — including at least 650,000 H-1B workers — in the jobs sought by U.S. college graduates. That business strategy is made possible by government labor policy, and it spikes Wall Street values, shrinks salaries, and steers middle-class Americans away from technology jobs.

Overall, the U.S. agriculture industry is heavily mechanized and automated. High-tech machinery allows farmers and a few workers to plant, help, and harvest vast acreages of row crops, such as wheat, corn, potatoes, carrots, and soybeans. The huge harvests feed Americans and many people abroad.

The U.S. dairy industry is partly automated but lags behind European dairy farms who have shrunk their labor costs by buying cow-milking robots. Dairy farmers are lobbying to be allowed into the H-2A program and complain that government-set milk prices are too low for them to afford the cow-milking robots.

But there is little automation in the business of picking fruit, such as peaches, apples, and strawberries. Cheap illegal labor has allowed farm companies to ignore technology, but that strategy has run into a ditch.

Farms in Mexico and South America are using their expert managers, extra sunshine, and cheaper labor to deliver more food to their countries and to export more food to the U.S., so cutting into U.S. farmers’ share of the U.S. market.

That international competition is also forcing American farms to consider automating their harvests.

The asparagus industry shows the connection between labor costs and automation.

In California and Idaho, asparagus is picked by migrants carrying a long tool. In Michigan, where there are fewer migrants, farms use buggies to help a team of several migrants pick the crop faster. In Europe, where migrants are expensive, companies are trying to use bigger machines that can pick the asparagus crop with few workers.

Business lobbies back the federal government’s economic policy of using both legal and illegal migration to boost economic growth. But that policy also shifts enormous wealth from young employees towards older investors by flooding the market with cheap white-collar and blue-collar foreign labor.

That annual inflow of roughly one million legal immigrants — as well as the population of two million visa workers and eight million working illegal immigrants — flood the labor market. The flood spikes profits and Wall Street values by shrinking salaries for 150 million blue-collar and white-collar employees and especially wages for the four million young Americans who join the labor force each year.

The federal government’s cheap labor policy widens wealth gaps, reduces high tech investment, increases state and local tax burdens, hurts kids’ schools and college education, pushes Americans away from high-tech careers, and sidelines millions of marginalized Americans, including many who are now struggling with fentanyl addictions.

Immigration also steers investment and wealth away from towns in Heartland states because coastal investors can more easily hire and supervise the large immigrant populations who prefer to live in coastal cities. In turn, that coastal investment flow drives up coastal real estate prices and pushes poor Americans, including Latinos and blacks, out of prosperous cities such as Berkeley and Oakland.

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