Say you are looking for a job. You find an advertisement for a seasonal farm worker for a vineyard that pays $18.00 an hour. Sounds great, right? Until you realize what the actual job entails. First, it’s seasonal, so laborers have to alternate between long stretches without any income and then months of 60-hour weeks. They work in extreme heat and cold, and spend all day bending over to tie vines, pick grapes, weed whack 50 acres of vines, pull leaves, spray chemicals, climbing up and down ladders, washing tanks, hauling 40 pounds of lugs around, and more. It’s very physical, exhausting, and labor-intensive. So you quit. This is not what you expected when you signed up for the job. It doesn’t matter the wage, your attitude is they couldn’t pay you enough to do the back-breaking manual labor. But then who is going to do the work?There are a growing number of agricultural businessmen who say they are face an urgent shortage of workers. The flow of labor began drying up when President Obama tightened the border. Now President Trump is promising to deport more people, raid more companies, and build a wall on the southern border. The Trump team’s theory is that by cutting off the flow of immigrants they will free up more jobs for American-born workers and push up their wages.
So far, the results aren’t encouraging for farmers or domestic workers.
While some might argue that of course they would do it if they were paid enough, the statistics prove otherwise. The U.S-born population is growing older and better educated, and therefore less likely to aspire to farm work. Even though the real hourly wage rate in agriculture increased more quickly than in non-agricultural work during the 1990’s, the percentage of U.S. Workers in agriculture declined, and continues to decline. The share of seasonal agricultural workers who were U.S.-born decreased from 31% in 1990 to only 19% by the end of that decade. Several public-private outreach, training, and placement initiatives (including one in California’s Central Valley in the late 1990’s and another in Washington state in 1996) sought to recruit U.S workers for agricultural jobs. The California program took place against the backdrop of regional unemployment rates of 9-12%, with some localized unemployment rates exceeding 20%. Yet only a handful of workers were successfully recruited, prompting some county employment agencies to state that they would no longer try to place the unemployed into seasonal or intermittent agricultural jobs.
Indeed, Chalmers R. Carr III, the president of Titan Farms, a South Carolina peach giant, told lawmakers at a 2013 hearing that he advertised 2,000 job openings from 2010 through 2012. Carr said he was paying $9.39, $2 more than the state’s minimum wage at the time. He hired 483 U.S. applicants, slightly less than a quarter of what he needed; 109 didn’t show up on the first day. Another 321 of them quit, “the vast majority in the first two days,” Carr testified. Only 31 lasted for the entire peach season.
If farmers upped the average wage to, say, $25 an hour, people born here might think twice. But that’s a pipe dream, many argue. “Well before we got to $25, there would be machines out in the fields, doing pruning or harvesting, or we would lose crops,” says Philip Martin, an economist at UC Davis and one of the country’s leading experts on agriculture.
Farmers are being forced to make difficult choices about whether to abandon their state’s hallmark fruits and vegetables, move operations abroad, import workers under a special visa or replace them all-together with machines. Growers who can afford it are raising the wages significantly and offering benefits to farm workers that are normally reserved for only white-collar professionals such as 401(k) plans, health insurance, subsidized housing, and profit-sharing bonuses. But the raises and new perks have not tempted native-born Americans to leave their day jobs for the fields. Nine in 10 agriculture workers in California are still foreign born, and more than half are undocumented, according to a federal survey.
Already, many farmers are experimenting with machines to reduce labor costs, as well as ripping out labor-intensive crops such as vineyards, and replacing them with less-labor intensive crops such as almond and olive trees. But what do vineyards do that don’t have the space between vines for machines, or the income to purchase the costly machines? Sadly, if they can’t obtain the labor force needed for the farms, they are closing the farms. And what about quality? It’s suggested that using machines reduces quality by injuring grapes, mixing the good grapes with bad grapes (less sorting), damaging vines from brute force of pulling leaves mechanically, and more.
A vineyard in Pennsylvania recently sent out a paid ad for vineyard workers trying to hire for the summer and harvest season. They have used illegal immigrants in the past to work in the vineyard, and have tried to help several of them gain work visas and legal status in the U.S. Unfortunately, they’ve met numerous obstacles in trying to help them, to the point they’ve given up. Now, they want to hire workers who aren’t illegal immigrants to avoid any future troubles with the stricter immigration laws coming down from the government. While they received several responses, only three showed up for an interview. Of those three, only one was willing to do the hard vineyard work. One person is not enough for 50 acres of vineyard. The Vineyard & Production Manager is worried about how they will get it all done. He already works 50 hour weeks, and that keeps increasing with the work load getting heavier in the vineyard. “What do you do when no one wants the job? We want to avoid hiring illegal immigrants because of the crackdown by ICE. The immigrants are afraid of being caught. And we’re afraid of being caught. It’s a no-win situation,” he said. The vineyard and manager wanted to remain anonymous so as not to provoke a visit from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents.
Politicians who cry, “They’re taking jobs away from Americans,” need a serious reality check. That faceless Pennsylvania vineyard farmer has tried numerous times to find legal labor, and they’re not alone. Ads in the local and regional papers or Craig’s List surfaced few candidates willing to put in the long grueling hours that come with a vineyard. Many studies that have been done recently have shown that if a mass deportation of illegal immigrants happens, agriculture prices will skyrocket and many agriculture businesses will crumble. We’ll become even more dependent on foreign imports for agricultural goods. Yet, isn’t part of the government’s platform to decrease our dependence on foreign goods and bring jobs back to America? This would have the opposite effect.
Legislators are ignoring an incontestable reality: The United States has an estimated 11.2 million undocumented immigrants, mostly Hispanics in agriculture.
What do we do with them? Imprison them? Send them en masse back to their native countries? Many of these hard-working people have been here for 15 years or more. Many have children born here. These kids are U.S. citizens. What to do with these young citizens? Kick them out of school? Deny them health care? And what about the businesses that depend on them to survive?
Obviously, a wine writer doesn’t have all the answers. But I do know that the nation would be smart, and humane, to devise a way for hard-working illegal immigrants who pass background checks to begin a fair process of qualifying for legal status. This is not blanket amnesty. It is accepting reality for the greater good.