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Could farms survive without illegal labor?

By Benjamin Shute
The New York Times


If farmers lose access to some of the skilled workers who pick fruit, plant vegetables and care for crops, food prices will certainly rise. However, this will not be a basic supply-and-demand equation, in which farmers simply would need to offer higher wages to attract American workers to the fields. In fact, many farmers already advertise jobs — with competitive wages, housing and transportation — to U.S. citizens to no avail, as part of the required process for then legally hiring skilled foreign guest workers through the U.S. government’s H-2A program.

The reality is that right now there are simply not enough trained and willing American agricultural workers to get these jobs done. By removing some of the current skilled but undocumented workers from the equation, food prices would rise not because worker pay would improve, but rather because jobs would go unfilled, apples would go unpicked and food would be in short supply.

If our lawmakers decide that American farmers should hire only American workers, then we as a country have a lot more work to do than just enforcing rules against illegal labor. We need to set a national priority to encourage a new generation of young farmers, and we must adjust our system of agriculture to make farms into places where Americans want to work.

On my vegetable farm, we overcome the odds and succeed in attracting young Americans who are enthusiastic about working in agriculture. The 10 people who plant, pick and weed with me put in long and strenuous days, motivated because they are gaining skills that will help them in their missions to steward their own land someday. Our farm attracts young people because we embrace innovations in farming. We follow the community-supported agriculture model, in which we grow a wide variety of vegetables, rather than picking one single crop all day, and then provide the harvest directly to our farm’s members, who have “subscribed” for the season. This direct-marketing strategy helps us to obtain a fair price for our produce, and to pay a fair wage. We use organic practices that ensure the safety of our workers, and our diversified approach attracts problem solvers and creative thinkers who are eager to engage in the challenge of managing a farm ecosystem, not a monoculture.

There is renewed interest among young people in farms like mine, but unfortunately the larger trend is an increase in the average age of the American farmer, currently 57 years old. To reverse this course, our country must take bold action to ensure that aspiring farmers have access to land, health care, capital, education and training. Congress should invest now in a farm bill that helps young Americans enter into and succeed in farming, and that creates incentives for diversified and sustainable agriculture. As we build a new generation of American farmers, we should also provide legal guest worker and citizenship opportunities for the skilled immigrant farm workers needed to grow our food right now, by passing legislation like the AgJOBS bill currently being considered by Congress.

My customers are proud to invest in my farm and to pay a fair price for food, because they share this vision for strong, sustainable agriculture in America. However, if food prices rise simply because Congress is pushing skilled undocumented workers off of farms, with no plan for the future, consumers are not likely to be so accepting.

Benjamin Shute is the co-owner and manager of Hearty Roots Community Farm, where he grows vegetables on 23 acres in New York’s Hudson River Valley. He is a co-founder of the National Young Farmers’ Coalition.