When Policy Hurts Our Farmers

Being a grocery supplier, we have our ear to the ground when it comes to farms and food. Local farmers in Pennsylvania have trouble getting enough workers to pick their harvest, which is a risk to us all. Harvesting fruits and vegetables is hard work. Many domestic workers refuse to do it, even if it pays more than fast-food work.

The government cracking down on migrants makes it difficult for farms to get enough labor. Many pickers make more than the farmers, per hour, and the money goes further for their families in their respective countries.

“Farmers have labor shortages because domestic workers don’t want to do harvest picking seasonally because it’s uncomfortable and difficult. You have to be skilled [because] you are paid by your ability to pick,” Kay Hollabaugh explains in her article, ”PA Farmers Say local Americans Just Don’t Want Farm Work.”

In Mexico, working as a day laborer will earn you $30 per week, $120 a month if you’re lucky and get work every day. The average hourly wage for a migrant worker in the US picking fruit or vegetables is $9.19-$11 an hour, depending on how much you can pick in a day. The work lasts 12 hours a day: that’s a minimum daily wage of $82.71 after a 25% tax is taken out. At $1,985.04 a month, they’re making 16 times what they would make in Mexico, working just as hard. Farmers say that their Mexican workers don’t complain and work quickly. Domestic workers would rather do office work in a comfortable environment, and many farmers say that when they hire domestic workers, they often quit soon after because the work is so grueling.

In the current political climate in the US, farmers report that they are receiving 40% or fewer migrant workers to do the work. The workers who did come are afraid to venture out to the grocery store even with documentation for fear of what might happen.

Consequently, farmers have struggled to get their harvest picked on time. Some have even had to reduce the amount they plant.

The farming industry isn’t the only one suffering. In Maryland, crab-meat suppliers depend on migrant workers. The lack of workers has their buyers going to more reliable sources of crab meat. One supplier wasn’t able to secure any visas due to the new lottery system, and consequently is considering moving his business to Mexico, where he knows he’ll find able workers. It is rare that domestic workers are willing to do the repetitive hand-work it takes to release crab meat from its shell.

“The Trump administration announced this past winter that it would distribute the temporary visas through a lottery — not the first-come, first-served system previously in place. In addition, Congress dropped a rule in 2017 that said workers who had gotten visas in the past could get them again without counting toward the annual cap,” states Teo Armus in his article “Please Come Help.”

If this shortage of migrant workers continues due to a national immigrant-hostile climate, there will be a food shortage. Prices for food will increase, including meat and canned goods (two industries that are also staffed heavily by migrant-workers).

A bill that includes measures that would increase the number of people that could come to the United States for work and also provide a path to citizenship for people currently in the country illegally was passed last year by the US senate (S. 744), but the house did not take up the bill. It was opposed by the “Center for Immigration Studies,” a controversial group that advises the current president and has an “America-first” nationalistic sentiment.

The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture spokeswoman has said, “Congressional reforms to the immigration problem need to assure that American agriculture has a legal, reliable, skilled and stable supply of workers for all types of agriculture.”

There are risks if farmers can’t get the food off the ground.

So what can we do to make sure we can keep our food supply stable, prices low, and increase the standard of living for migrant workers and their families?

  1. Contact your representative and speak out against political hostility toward migrant workers.

  2. Demand that our government realize the importance the migrant worker plays in our society to better our lives as Americans (doing jobs we would rather not do).

  3. Buy local when possible to support smaller farms in this time that they have fewer workers. Recognize the hard work of the migrant workers who work 12+ hour days to give us food.

  4. Spread the word about potential food shortages due to farms not having enough migrant workers to meet demand. Include this concern in your email to your representative, and bring it up respectfully to friends.

  5. To spread the word, offer a movie night and show the movie, “A Day Without A Mexican.”

  6. Read the book, “Breaking Through,” by Francisco Jiménez to learn more about what migrant families experience when caught by “La Migra.” Available in Spanish or English.