Migrant workers harvesting sweet potatoes on a farm in VA. Photo: USDA by Lance Cheung.

Blog | August 24, 2018

Immigration and the Food System

by Jessica Kurn

Amid the clinking of glasses and low hum of diners’ chatter, a waiter carries a salad bowl through a restaurant. This is not just a bowl of greens—these spinach leaves and romaine hearts represent a vast network of labor: from farmers planting the seeds and farmworkers harvesting the greens, to drivers trucking them across state lines, and kitchen staff washing them, and many layers in between.

Immigrants are deeply involved in this complex journey from seed to plate. They are an essential link in the chain of our food system, and are an indelible part of rural America, contributing to the economic and cultural fabric of these communities. It’s hard to picture our food system without them.

Dairy farmer, Randy Mooney

Farmer Randy Mooney, Chairman of the Board of the Dairy Farmers of America, knows this all too well. After losing his main farmhand due to illness, Randy tried tirelessly to recruit workers for his farm. Randy, a third-generation dairy farmer from Missouri, went through the usual channels: local universities (three of them), newspaper postings, and word of mouth, all of which resulted in only one response (that didn’t work out). But, just down the road, his neighbor had consistent, reliable help from immigrant farmworkers.

This phenomenon is not unique to Randy or Midwestern dairies. Farm help is needed from coast to coast, border to border, and among all agricultural sectors. Estimates of farmworkers in this country vary greatly. On the one hand, Farmworker Justice, estimates that 70-80% of farmworkers are immigrants (between half and three-quarters of whom are undocumented). The USDA however, has a slightly lower number, citing that about 60% of all agriculture workers are foreign born. These discrepancies speak to the veiled nature of the work, number of undocumented workers, and power inequities embedded in the industry.[i] Crop production employs the most immigrants, as 85% of fruits and vegetables are harvested by hand.[ii]

 

The H-2A Visa Program

Randy explains that the main legal route for most farmers to employ foreign labor is through the H-2A visa program. He emphasizes most because these visas allow farmers to hire non-citizens for seasonal, temporary work. The nature of dairy farming, with its year-round schedule, means farmers like Randy are out of luck when it comes to employing legal immigrant labor.

The program may sound like an ideal fix for farmers getting help with their crops, but farmer testimony at a House Judiciary Committee Hearing last summer tells a different story. Farmers at the hearing spoke about mountains of additional expenses and paperwork, along with delays in getting workers on the farm.

The U.S. food system simply could not function without the contributions of immigrants, and a one-size-fits-all approach to immigration does not work.

The H-2A visa program has resulted in complaints from farmworkers too. Human rights organizations, like Farmworker Justice, have documented accounts of “lower than advertised wages, less work than promised, dirty and dilapidated housing, dangerous working conditions, and even forced labor or slavery.”[iii] Red Tomato, a New England-based food hub for fresh produce, adds that H-2A workers are highly vulnerable, since their visas legally tie them to the farm that provides their housing, transport and legal status in the U.S. This results in workers too fearful of retaliation to speak out against abuses.[iv] Even with all of these problems, program numbers have quadrupled in the past 12 years, from nearly 48,000 jobs in 2005 to 200,000 positions in 2017.[v]

Albert Campbell at Blue Hills Orchard in CT. Photo: Red Tomato/Adam DeTour

Though the H-2A visa program is far from perfect, Red Tomato has documented successful and positive stories throughout New England. Below is an account from Jamaican farmworkers on a Connecticut farm. Visit Red Tomato for additional farmworker stories.

It’s still early in the season at Blue Hills Orchard in Wallingford, Connecticut, in April. Only five of the Jamaican H2A guest worker program crew has started work pruning and prepping the orchard for the summer—the rest of the crew will travel to the US in the next few months for the harvest that begins in August. This core crew stays on the orchard for more months of the year than they are home in Jamaica, usually 7-9 months. Most have been working for Eric at Blue Hills Orchard for decades. Albert has been working at Blue Hills for 27 years, and Hermon for over 30. The other workers defer to these two as their leaders; Hermon is the boss but Albert is more comfortable doing the talking. It is these two men that will help teach new workers the business and techniques in the upcoming months.

Both Albert and Herman have farms back at home—not just farmworkers, they are farmers. A common misunderstanding is that this kind of work is unskilled labor. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Albert farms vegetables, Herman vegetables and papaya. Though both are insistent that the weather back in Jamaica is better in the summer, Albert says working in Connecticut at Blue Hills is great; it’s beautiful and “there’s plenty of fruit to eat,” he says with a grin.

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The Jamaicans say they have had no problems with the H2A program. Their friends at other farms in New England and New York, also on H2A visas, also speak well of the program. Herman likes the experience of traveling and the money he earns through the program. Albert farmed tobacco for one year before coming to Blue Hills, but says working with fruit is much better. Eric is a good boss—good-humored and respectful. He has known some of these men since he was young and learned the business for himself from his own father. The same farmworkers come back every year and know each other and the orchard well.

The Jamaicans farm in the US because they can earn a decent living putting their knowledge and skills to work. They are paid much more here than in Jamaica and are able to make enough in their time here to support their families. The H2A relationship is mutually beneficial for the orchard and the Jamaicans. As Albert puts it, “If these [orchards] don’t have Jamaicans, then no more farms.” The recent farm raids by ICE and feelings of unease among the immigrant farm worker community have not reached the Jamaicans. The only tension they feel is about their work and getting everything done in time for the season. “This country was built on migrant labor, who’s going to farm if we don’t?” Albert asks matter-of-factly.

When asked, none of the Jamaicans recall having felt any animosity from the community in Wallingford. Albert and the others are welcomed in town and people go out of their way to tell Eric how friendly and nice his guys are. They are asked to be here—they sign a contract and carry legal visas. It’s important to Albert and the others to be able to go home when the work is done—Albert loves to work but not enough to stay in the US. “There is too much at stake down [in Jamaica]. We are peaceful—we just came here to work and go home, just treat us good,” he explains.

 

How did we get here?

Much of our agricultural system, and frankly, much of our country, has been built by immigrants. But what led us down this specific road? There are many factors; including a program called Bracero, which ramped up the nation’s fruit and vegetable sector to a point that was only sustainable with supplementary labor. This program began when World War II created a shortage of farm labor leading the U.S. to sign a diplomatic agreement permitting Mexicans to work on U.S. farms. Rural Mexico became dependent on this money, and American workers moved off farms and into cities.[vi]

Today, most Americans have little to no farm knowledge or experience—something many immigrants arrive with. But farm work is intensely grueling and dangerous. On average, more than one farmworker dies in a work-related accident each day, and the injury rate is 20% above other industry averages.[vii]

Who are farmworkers?

Finding complete and comparable information about agricultural workers, particularly immigrant workers, is not easy to come by. The U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey unfortunately excludes livestock and poultry workers; however, it gives us a sense of who works in U.S. farm fields.

According to the 2013-2014 survey, a typical farmworker is a young, married, 38-year-old, Hispanic male. That said, the share of women farmworkers is rising, from about 17% in 2009, to nearly 24% in 2016.[viii] About 68% of farmworkers are Mexican-born, 27% born in the U.S. (among U.S. born workers, 27% are Hispanic), 4% are Central American-born, and 1% are from other countries.[ix] These numbers are expected to change due to sociopolitical reasons, and as fewer young immigrants enter U.S. agriculture.[x]

Youth also work in our fields. Workers aged 14-18 account for six percent of hired crop farmworkers. And, seven in eight of these young people do not live with a parent.[xi]

The term migrant workers is frequently used. Migrant farmworkers are those who travel at least 75 miles during a 12-month period for seasonal or temporary jobs. The USDA reports that this trend is declining and more than 80% of crop farmworkers do not migrant due to demographic, governmental and economic changes in the U.S. and Mexico.[xii][xiii]

 

The Ripple Effects of the Immigration Debate

With an immigration debate raging nationally (but little to no action to resolve it in Congress), farmers like Randy Mooney worry about the availability of workers and the ripple effects of labor shortages. “All I know right now is that our message to Congress needs to be that if we don’t get this straightened out, the dairy industry is going to change dramatically because we’re not going to have the labor on the farms to produce the milk we need, and prices to consumers will go up.” He refers to a study out of Texas A&M University that spelled disaster for a dairy industry without any immigrant labor. The study found this industry employed an estimated 150,418 workers in 2013, of whom 76,968 were immigrants. Losing those workers would translate to a loss of 7,011 farms (generally smaller family farms are most at risk). All told, this would lead to an estimated 90% increase in milk prices for consumers.[xiv]

The Trump Administration’s current focus on deportations is already proving disruptive to our food system and harmful to the family farmers who grow our food. A 2014 Farm Bureau study showed that an enforcement-only approach to immigration (i.e. strengthened border security, strict enforcement of existing laws, and aggressive use of deportation) could lead to a 5-6% increase in food prices for consumers, with fruits and vegetables hit the hardest. The study also noted that this approach to immigration could lead to a 15-29% drop in net farm income “due to lower production, lower gross receipts, and higher expenses.”

Migrant workers pick sweet potatoes at a farm in VA. Photo: USDA by Lance Cheung.

Stories of farmers forced to let heads of lettuce, Brussels sprouts, and other crops rot due to labor shortages have become more common. Farmers fear the immigration crackdown will discourage foreign workers from coming to work in U.S. fields. Estimates from the Partnership for a New American Economy show labor shortages cost the American economy nearly $3.1 billion a year.[xv] A lack of labor compounds problems for farmers who are already suffering due to a farm economy that’s in crisis.

It is imperative that the immigration debate and subsequent reform value the rights of immigrants and farmers. At Farm Aid, we celebrate America’s great diversity of farmers and all the people who are part of the food system. We believe that every person, no matter their background or immigration status, deserves basic human rights, dignity and respect, as well as fair, equitable, healthy and safe working conditions. We also recognize that current immigration policies are not in the best interest of farmers, who need workers on their farms and ranches, farmworkers who deserve the opportunity to work without fear, and our food system.

Migrant workers harvest corn on a farm in CA. Photo: USDA by Bob Nichols

Reality on the Farm

Back on Randy Mooney’s dairy farm, he considers his situation “I grew up on a dairy farm—that’s all I ever wanted to do,” he says.

He finds himself to be generally lucky, yet the fact that he’s having trouble finding labor is a major challenge. “It’s very frustrating and it’s going to end up crippling the dairy industry. You know, we talk about people going out of business because of price. And prices are low, but the only thing worse than that is not having anybody to milk the cows. Waking up in the morning and you’ve got 300 head of cows like I do, and you don’t have any labor. That’s worse!” So he keeps on keeping on, milking his cows and searching for others to join him in a system with no easy answers, but an urgent need to find them.


[i] Inventory of Farmworker Issues and Protections in the United States. March 2011. Bon Appétit Management Company Foundation and United Farm Workers.

[ii] Farmworkers’ Vital Contribution to North Carolina’s Economy. Student Action with Farmworkers.

[iii] No Way to Treat a Guest: Why the H-2A Agricultural Visa Program Fails U.S. and Foreign Workers. Farmworker Justice.

[iv] Righteous Produce: Behind the Scenes of Local. Red Tomato.

[v] Farm Economy. August 2017. USDA Economic Research Service.

[vi] The Bracero Program: Was It a Failure? by Philip Martin. July 2006. History News Network, The George Washington University.

[vii] At the Company’s Mercy: Protecting Contingent Workers from Unsafe Working Conditions. January 2013. Center for Progressive Reform.

[viii] Farm Labor. May 2018. USDA Economic Research Service.

[ix] Selected Statistics on Farmworkers. 2014. Farmworker Justice.

[x] Farm Labor. May 2018. USDA Economic Research Service.

[xi] Findings from the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) 2000-2009: Profiles of Youth, Parents, and Children of Farm Workers in the United States. November 2014. U.S. Department of Labor.

[xii] Farm Labor. May 2018. USDA Economic Research Service.

[xiii] Where Did All the Migrant Farm Workers Go? By Maoyong Fan and Jeffrey M. Perloff. July 2016. Institute for Research on Labor and Employment.

[xiv] The Economic Impacts of Immigrant Labor on U.S. Dairy Farms. By Flynn Adcock, David Anderson, and Parr Rosson. June 2015. Center For North American Studies.

[xv] The Role of Immigrants in Our Food System. By Jenna Broughton. December 2016. Inc.

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