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Farm Labor News

Farm Business Management Update, December 2001

By Jeff Alwang

The September 11 terrorist attacks have had far-reaching impacts on the entire country and agriculture is no exception. News reports show that crackdowns on immigration following September 11 have two effects on farm labor: Mexican workers are finding it more difficult to reenter the U.S. given tightening on the border, and some workers, who may be in the country illegally, are less likely to leave following the end of the 2001 growing season. In addition to these effects on farm labor, the attacks have derailed congressional movement towards a new immigration bill. Prior to the attacks, all sides of the debate were close to a compromise, but gaps have opened since. How will these factors play out as we enter the 2002 season? What can growers in Virginia do in anticipation of the coming season? To answer these questions we must first examine how these forces are affecting growers elsewhere.

As reported in the November 19 Tampa Tribune:

"With Florida's winter harvest season fast approaching, the state's multibillion agriculture industry wonders whether it will have enough workers to pick crops.

"The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service clamped down on the Mexican border after the Sept. 11 attacks - a practice farmers fear could stem the flow of workers into Florida.

Since Sept. 11, the number of illegal immigrants attempting to cross the border from Mexico to the United States has significantly decreased, according to INS .

During October, INS apprehensions at the Mexican border were down 54 percent, compared with October 2000. The agency says border agents are working overtime to catch aliens trying to sneak across."

The article goes on to report that Florida citrus growers are adopting a wait and see attitude; when peak harvest approaches, they hope that adequate labor will be available. Growers in Florida are also closely interested in progress on the immigration bill and are looking toward increased mechanization. All agree that mechanization is a long way down the road, and wonder how short-term labor shortages may squeeze profit margins.

Similar reports abound from other states. As reported in the Muskegon (Michigan) Chronicle (November 4): "'Sept. 11 will have a profound influence on how this nation conducts its affairs especially pertaining to immigration,'" said George Matheos assistant district director for Investigations for the U.S. Department of Justice's Immigration and Naturalization Service bureau in Detroit." The abundance of illegal workers in rural America may be ending as a consequence of the terrorist attacks.

On the other hand, several reports have emerged of workers remaining in the U.S. following expiration of their labor contract. H-2A workers who overstay their contracts become illegal entrants, and employers who encourage them may be subject to legal sanctions. In any case, such actions harm the program. People with whom I have spoken have said there is wide knowledge in congress of the importance of the H-2A program and the only danger to it is caused by abuse of the system. Employers should encourage their workers to return to their country of origin following termination of their employment contract; the program will in all likelihood exist next year. The net effect of fewer people leaving the U.S. is likely to be, on net, small relative to the effect of tightening at the border.

These changes occur as recent trends have shown increasing reliance in the agricultural industry on migrant workers. Use of migrant workers in agriculture has grown in recent years, and, even following September 11, reliance on migrant workers increased. In October 2000, approximately 11.3 percent of farmworkers were migrants, and in October 2001, they represented 12.1 percent of the total. Over the same period, growth in farm wages exceeded inflation. As immigration controls at the Mexican border tighten, growers can expect a tighter labor market, which translates into fewer workers and higher wages in the next growing season.

Will next year be a "lean" labor year? The answer depends on a number of factors. First, the performance of the overall economy will affect the availability of labor. Depending on the length and depth of the economic recession (which most experts agree began in March 2001), layoffs and slow hiring in other industries may actually play into growers' hands. The last serious recession in the late 1980s and early 1990s caused enough slowdown in rural economies that farmers were able to find local workers without much difficulty. Of course, this recession followed closely the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which led to a glut of agricultural workers in many regions of the country. But the economic slowdown will make some forms of labor more abundant.

Second, it is unclear how the overall "migrant" flow in Virginia will be affected by border crackdowns. It is likely that fewer workers will flow across the border to replace former agricultural workers who settle out of the farm work. This factor will tighten the markets. The degree to which this tightening affects Virginia growers is unclear, but fewer "Hispanic" workers will be available. Third, progress on immigration reform is a wild card that can have a tremendous effect on prospects even as quickly as next year.

How should growers in Virginia respond to these trends? The major response has to be one of caution. Growers should be made aware of the potential for labor shortages and begin planning early. Those with regular sources of migrant workers should make inquiries about the availability of these workers for next year. Those who have experienced trouble in finding workers in the past should start the search process as early as is possible. Discussions should be held with local offices of the Virginia Employment Commission about methods of search for U.S. and other workers.

Grower organizations should also be made aware of potential problems and begin to organize alternatives. If a labor shortage becomes significant, the entire Virginia Agricultural industry needs to be behind efforts to find solutions. The H-2A program might be an attractive alternative to scarce local and migrant labor. Agreements for labor transfer across states might be an alternative. Aggressive recruiting efforts in areas hard-hit by economic downturns might be another. The key is early planning, complete with a number of contingency outcomes.

Agricultural employers should continue to closely monitor legislative action on labor and immigration-related issues. Progress on immigration talks with Mexico will have major impacts on the availability of workers. Another development that may affect agricultural employers is increased monitoring by INS and other law enforcement of visitors to the U.S. Depending on the system that evolves, such measures may increase reporting and other burdens on employers. Al French's farm labor listserve is an excellent source of information on pending legislation. Another good source of information is, the immigration portal.

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