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Focus on Agriculture

February 19, 2014

Immigration Reform, Important for Agriculture

By Robert Giblin

Immigration reform is one of the most important challenges facing American agriculture. While Washington is gridlocked on many issues, most members of Congress recognize that the current immigration system in the United States is broken. However, there are strong disagreements on the meaning of “reform” as well as how to fix the system.

Well-meaning legislators and advocates for immigration policy changes cite numerous reasons to support their positions. Often lost in the discussion are the unintended negative consequences, including decreased domestic food production and higher prices, of only doing part of the job and not passing complete, responsible immigration reform.

Labor is farming’s third-highest expense – 17 percent of production costs averaged across all sectors, and 35 percent to 48 percent in labor-intensive subsectors, such as fruits, vegetables and horticulture.

In the last decade, hired farm workers have grown in importance among other sectors, including dairy, hogs and poultry. Yet farming is hard work; farm labor is hard to find and harder to keep.

Most Americans have “outgrown” farm work; they are unwilling to take farm jobs even if unemployed. As a result, farmers have come to rely on an immigrant labor force – an estimated 70 percent of which are in undocumented status. Farmers also rely on the H-2A program; however, because it is extremely costly and bureaucratic the program only accounts for 4 percent of the agricultural labor force.

Agriculture craves stability and access to a legal workforce. A just-released report shows that will come only through responsible and complete immigration reform.

The report, “Gauging the Farm Sector’s Sensitivity to Immigration Reform,” commissioned by the American Farm Bureau Federation and conducted by World Agricultural Economic Environmental Services, studied several immigration reform alternatives. The report was released in conjunction with the #IFarmImmigration grassroots campaign, a month-long initiative sponsored by AFBF and the Partnership for a New American Economy, to promote the need for immigration reform.

According to the report, the best option includes enforcement, an adjustment of status and work authorization for experienced agricultural workers, and a redesigned, efficient guest worker program. With only a 1-percent impact on farm income and negligible effects on food prices, this option has the fewest negative effects for farmers and consumers alike.

Two other options – enforcement-only and enforcement plus legalization – would drain the pool of agricultural workers. Enforcement-only would reduce farmers’ access to labor, while enforcement plus legalization encourages workers to leave the agricultural industry, similar to the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. Both options leave farmers with no ability to find replacements. If Congress passes one of these options, food prices could increase 5 percent to 6 percent over five years. Fruit production could be cut by 30 percent to 61 percent, vegetables by 15 percent to 31 percent, and meat by 13 percent to 27 percent.


Robert Giblin consults, writes and speaks about agriculture and food industry issues and trends.