President Donald Trump helped farmers last month by expanding the H-2A program to allow 15,000 more temporary workers to enter the country.
The move, as good as it is, would have had a much more significant impact if thousands more farm laborers could enter the United States through program. The farm labor shortage is acute.
The H-2A is designed for temporary non-citizen farm workers while its companion, H-2B, is aimed at workers in other industries.
Both programs allow the hiring of temporary workers provided specific requirements are met. The rules require employers to meet certain recruitment, wage and working conditions. Immigrant laborers and those who employ them both have benefitted from the programs.
Still, the U.S. Department of Labor estimates that half or more of the laborers working on farms are undocumented. Contrary to what some people say, the number of workers — legal or illegal — to fill jobs on America's farms is not sufficient. Some farmers say they have lost crops because pickers aren’t available. The shortage was worsened in recent years because the Mexican economy has improved enough to provide job opportunities there.
A recent survey found that 55 percent of farm employers say that finding skilled and unskilled workers is their biggest concern. Sixty-one percent say they are having difficulty finding workers to replace those lost to retirement.
It is well documented that in the 20th century, migrant workers were subject to labor abuses, but government regulations and farm owner actions have made conditions better for workers.
Many farmers have constructed long-term relationships with temporary workers, who come to the United States annually and send money back home to their families.
The labor market is tight throughout the United States and incredibly so in agriculture. There is a concern that labor shortages will cause fruit and vegetables to rot in fields. Trump’s tough talk and actions regarding immigration caused increased concern. However, his smart decision should go a little way to calm those fears.
However, many farmers — particularly those who produce fruit and vegetable crops — continue to fear that Trump’s recent promise to deport undocumented workers would harm their businesses.
Owners insist that Americans don’t want farm field jobs even if wages were increased. Many say that without undocumented workers, their production systems would collapse.
Some within the farming community say that labor shortages will spur rapid advances in robotics and other technologies. For example, dairy owners have moved to robotics to reduce the need for laborers. However, robotics will not solve the problem.
Higher wages might help, but growers say American workers aren’t willing to work long hours in hot conditions no matter the wage.
President Trump helped agriculture by allowing more temporary laborers into the country, but an additional expansion is needed. The president’s goal is to have an annual economic growth rate in the country of 4 percent. Economists say that growth will be impossible to achieve without more workers being made available in the farm sector.
Continue to expand the H-2A program and introduce programs that would let today's undocumented workers become documented and we'll go a long way towards that economic growth.