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Labor Shortage Beyond Immigration Reform

Era of affordable, available labor coming to an end, economist says

by Andrew Adams
Better access to education in Mexico during the past two decades has led to a reduced number of farm laborers available to work in the United States.
San Rafael, Calif.—Reforming U.S. immigration law may alleviate the shortage of available farm workers for the short term, but changing laws and opening up the border cannot change the reality that the immigrant labor pool is essentially running dry, according to an agricultural economics expert.

“The immigration debate in Washington, D.C., as it pertains to agriculture, continues to assume that immigration is the solution to the U.S. farm-labor problem,” said J. Edward Taylor, a professor and the director of Rural Economics and Pacific Rim at the University of California, Davis. “Our work strongly suggests that immigration reforms offer farmers a short-term, stopgap solution, at best.”

Mexico’s farm workforce declined by nearly 2 million people between 1995 and 2010, meanwhile average incomes steadily increased, birthrates decreased, and rural residents had better access to education. As Mexico becomes more affluent and better educated, its residents are leaving farm work at home and abroad. Far fewer (if any) Mexicans aspire to be seasonal farm workers in the United States, according to Taylor’s research.

Taylor will be discussing his work Tuesday during a seminar hosted by the Oregon Wine Research Institute from 3:30 p.m. until 5 p.m. on the Oregon State University campus in Corvallis, Ore. A live stream of Taylor’s remarks will be available at

‘Era of farm labor abundance’
Writing for the journal Agricultural and Resource Economics Update, Taylor notes that the trend of people leaving farm labor as per-capita income increases is seen in all countries over time. This shift happened in the United States during the mid-1900s, and Mexico was there to fill the need for farm workers.

Mexico also is exporting more food to the United States, placing more demand on the country’s decreasing supply of farm workers. “In fact, Mexico now imports farm workers from Guatemala. It is in a transition phase of being both an exporter and importer of farm labor,” Taylor says.

Taylor argues that while Mexico can import some of its needed labor from Guatemala and other Central American nations, the shift away from farm labor is happening even more quickly in those smaller economies. Instead of finding the next Mexico, or another source of affordable foreign labor, U.S. farms will have to become as efficient as possible with fewer workers by investing in new machinery or transitioning to less labor-intensive crops.

He said the wine and grape industries are already a few steps ahead because growers have become more open to technology. “In California, wine grape production has mechanized quite a bit, which is good news,” he said.

Vineyards also have a built-in advantage in that they provide work in addition to harvest such as pruning. “Stable jobs are relatively attractive and put wine grape production in a better position to compete for a dwindling supply of farm labor than, say, hand-picked fruits and vegetables, particularly those with a short harvest window.”

The changes in Mexico reflect a structural shift in the country’s economy. Labor shortages around the spring or summer in recent years have been attributed to tighter border control, the recession and violence from Mexico’s drug cartels.

Taylor points out, however, that of new immigrants, only 9% between 2007 and 2009 were crop workers (compared to a quarter between 1998 and 2000). This decrease over time is not reflected in non-farm labor.

Loosening the border would ease the shortage in the short term, but it would just be a temporary measure, he said. “U.S. immigration policies cannot change the reality that Mexico’s workforce is moving out of agriculture.”

Last summer, the U.S. Senate approved a bill to reform immigration laws in the United States, and it was hoped by those in agriculture and the wine industry that the House of Representatives would soon follow suit. That hope quickly died when it became clear that members of the Republican Party couldn’t reconcile on passing immigration reform to help the economy versus tightening the border.

President Barack Obama announced in late May that he had directed the Office of Homeland Security to postpone a review of deportations of immigrants in the country illegally. In doing so, administration officials said it would give House Republicans time to find a resolution for immigration reform.

Like a reservoir during a drought
If Congress ever reaches a consensus on immigration reform, it may well be too late.  “Our finding of a diminishing supply of farm labor from rural Mexico suggests that in the medium to long run, if not sooner, farmers will have to take other measures to adjust to a smaller farm workforce.”

As the number of available workers continues to diminish, Taylor said relations between farmers and labor contractors will become even more important. He likened the situation to a reservoir during a drought: The furthest and most remote corners dry up first. “That could mean that states closer to the Mexican border and agricultural areas with a longer history of being connected with farm labor networks will be in a better position to compete.”


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