Immigration reform wanted this year
—New report shows labor challenges led to loss in GDP
A group of producers and agricultural stakeholders have joined forces to provide a study that claims immigration reform is the missing link in keeping U.S. produce from being replaced by imported fruits and vegetables.
The Partnership for a New American Economy and the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform released a new report last week showing how American families are eating more imported fresh produce today than ever before, in substantial part because U.S. fresh produce growers lack enough labor to expand their production and compete with foreign importers.
“American consumers want fresh U.S grown fruits and vegetables, but our farmers don’t have the labor force available to meet that demand,” said John Feinblatt, Chairman of the Partnership for a New American Economy. “This means more produce is imported, and our economy loses millions of dollars and thousands of jobs every year. We need to pass immigration reform now, so our food remains homegrown and our economy strong.”
The full report, titled “No Longer Home Grown: How Labor Shortages are Increasing America’s Reliance on Imported Fresh Produce and Slowing U.S. Economic Growth,” calls out problems with the agricultural guest-worker program known as H-2A, which brings in about 68,000 farm workers annually, out of roughly 1 million farm workers. Studies have shown that as much as 70 percent of the agricultural workforce could be in the country illegally.
“On the issue of farm labor, we have a growing amount of evidence that all points in the same direction: Farmers and consumers both need responsible immigration reform,” said American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman, a cattle and rice farmer from Texas.
While just 14.5 percent of the fresh fruit Americans purchased from 1998-2000 was imported, by the 2010-2012 period, 25.8 percent was. For fresh vegetables, imports as a share of total spending climbed from 17.1 to 31.2 percent during the same period. Adjusted to constant dollars, that meant the share of produce that was imported grew by 79.3 percent overall, according to the study.
Using data primarily from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Department of Commerce, and the University of Georgia, the study shares that between the 1998-2000 period and the 2010- 2012 one, the amount of fresh produce consumed by Americans grew by 10.5 percent. During that same time frame, the amount of fresh produce being produced by U.S. growers rose by only 1.4
According to the study, had U.S. fresh fruit and vegetable growers been able to maintain the domestic market share they held from 1998-2000, their communities would have enjoyed a substantial economic boost, resulting in an estimated $4.9 billion in additional farming income and 89,300 more jobs in 2012. The increase in production would also have raised U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by almost $12.4 billion that year.
The research also found that the challenges farmers had finding sufficient labor to harvest crops and expand production accounted for a full 27 percent of the recent decline.
Tomatoes, strawberries and avocadoes are some of the examples the study pointed to where U.S. growers have lost market share to imports going back to 1998. Lettuce, broccoli, asparagus and mushroom imports have more than doubled since 1998. According to reports, all produce imports have risen nearly 39 percent during this time frame.
The report also cites growing incidences of farmers leaving some of their crops in the field due to lack of workers to harvest them. The report estimates U.S. farmers are facing a labor shortage of about 80,000 workers nationally.
Though focused on labor concerns, the report also noted the role free-trade agreements have played in boosting imports. The U.S. has signed 12 free-trade agreements since 1998, all of which have brought in cheaper imports of fruits and vegetables. NAFTA, signed in 1993, also allowed Mexico to ramp up its exports of products such as tomatoes and strawberries into the U.S. Some products such as asparagus are imported tariff-free from countries such as Peru that have lower labor costs and lesser environmental standards.
•In recent years, the share of fresh fruits and vegetables consumed by American ilies that was imported has grown by 79.3 percent.
•In America, our production of fresh produce and the demands of consumers are increasingly out of sync. While the amount of fresh produce and vegetables consumed by Americans has grown in recent years, production levels have either barely grown or declined.
•Had U.S. fresh fruit and vegetable growers been able to maintain the domestic market share they held from 1998-2000, their communities would have enjoyed a substantial economic boost, resulting in an estimated $4.9 billion in additional farming income and 89,300 more jobs in 2012 alone. U.S. GDP would have been $12.4 billion higher in 2012.
•Labor challenges faced by U.S. farmers and the inadequacies of the H-2A visa program are a key reason why American farmers have been unable to maintain their share of the domestic market. Labor alone can explain as much as $3.3 billion in missed GDP growth in 2012. It also accounts for $1.4 billion in farm income that wasn’t realized that year.
The data for this report was compiled by Stephen Bronars, Ph.D., a Senior Economist at Welch Consulting. The report was released in conjunction with a panel discussion at the National Press Club featuring major farmers from around the country, including:
•Chalmers Carr, President & CEO, Titan Farms, South Carolina; •Russell W. Boening, Owner Operator, Loma Vista Farms & Boening Bros. Dairy, Texas;
•Carlos Castaneda, Owner Operator, Castaneda & Sons, Inc. & Mission Labor, Inc., California;
•Mary Kraft, Owner, CFO and Human Resource Manager, Badger Creek Farm and Quail Ridge Dairy, Fort Morgan, CO; and
•Chuck Conner (moderator of the panel), President & CEO, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives.
Boening, who is a state director with the Texas Farm Bureau, told reporters the current H2A system just doesn’t work. “On our opera tion—a full-time farm, dairy, beef operation—it hasn’t worked for us at all because of needing full-time workers,” he said. “We need some type of new worker visa program that would work for us who need full-time people.”
The Agriculture Workforce Coalition (AWC) brings together organizations representing the diverse needs of agricultural employers across the country. AWC serves as the unified voice of agriculture in the effort to ensure that America’s farmers, ranchers and growers have access to a stable and secure workforce.
The founding members of the AWC are: American Farm Bureau Federation; American Nursery & Landscape Association; Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association; National Council of Agricultural Employers; National Council of Farmer Cooperatives; National Milk Producers Federation; USA Farmers; U.S. Apple Association; United Fresh Produce Association; Western Growers Association; and Western United Dairymen.
Meanwhile, the divide at the capital over the immigration topic seems to be stalling any forward movement. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) held a local telephone conference sharing some of his thoughts on immigration reform.
Grassley is a ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and is opposed to the Senate’s immigration bill, along with a number of other Republican politicians. The Senate did pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill last summer, but House leaders want more emphasis on border security and oppose an amnesty plan for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. today.
Despite the apparent divide between the two sides, Grassley said it may be possible to get a reform package in 2014.
“Don’t forget you have got some Republican interest in showing we aren’t against immigration or against Hispanics and do things to say we are open minded to other points of view on that, but it’s going to have to be one that guarantees the borders are secure,” he said.
Grassley believes if Congress insists on a legalization program, it’s important these individuals truly do “earn” any potential adjustment to legal status. This includes assimilation efforts such as learning English or paying back taxes.
He also supports increased border and interior enforcement measures. This includes increasing agents in states like Iowa, and providing funding for fencing, technology, and border patrol agents.
The full AWC report can be found at http://www.renewoureconomy.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/nolonger-home-grown.pdf — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor