Trump Administration Immigration Policies Could Hamper Some Ag Sectors

In addition to trade issues, potential uncertainty associated with Trump administration immigration policies has some sectors of the agricultural economy anxious.

Immigration Policies: Agricultural Implications

Caitlin Dickerson and Jennifer Medina reported in Friday’s New York Times that, “Jeff Marchini and others in the Central Valley here [Merced, Calif.] bet their farms on the election of Donald J. Trump. His message of reducing regulations and taxes appealed to this Republican stronghold, one of Mr. Trump’s strongest bases of support in the state.

“As for his promises about cracking down on illegal immigrants, many assumed Mr. Trump’s pledges were mostly just talk. But two weeks into his administration, Mr. Trump has signed executive orders that have upended the country’s immigration laws.

Now farmers here are deeply alarmed about what the new policies could mean for their workers, most of whom are unauthorized, and the businesses that depend on them.

Friday’s article explained that, “Mr. Trump’s immigration policies could transform California’s Central Valley, a stretch of lowlands that extends from Redding to Bakersfield. Approximately 70 percent of all farmworkers here are living in the United States illegally, according to researchers at University of California, Davis. The impact could reverberate throughout the valley’s precarious economy, where agriculture is by far the largest industry. With 6.5 million people living in the valley, the fields in this state bring in $35 billion a year and provide more of the nation’s food than any other state.”

New York Times Photo: “Workers packing a bin at a farm in California’s Central Valley” (Credit, Max Whittaker for The New York Times).

The Times article stated that, “Many here feel vindicated by the election, and signs declaring ‘Vote to make America great again’ still dot the highways. But in conversations with nearly a dozen farmers, most of whom voted for Mr. Trump, each acknowledged that they relied on workers who provided false documents. And if the administration were to weed out illegal workers, farmers say their businesses would be crippled. Even Republican lawmakers from the region have supported plans that would give farmworkers a path to citizenship.”

Dickerson and Medina added that, “Farmers here have faced a persistent labor shortage for years, in part because of increased policing at the border and the rising prices charged by smugglers who help people sneak across. The once-steady stream of people coming from rural towns in southern Mexico has nearly stopped entirely. The existing field workers are aging, and many of their children find higher-paying jobs outside agriculture.”

Meanwhile, Bloomberg writers Lauren Etter and Shruti Singh reported last week that, “Word of President Trump’s executive order barring the entry of international refugees shocked Fort Morgan, a town of 11,000 on the snowy plains of Colorado, some 80 miles northeast of Denver. Many of the workers at a Cargill Meat Solutions plant that’s the town’s largest employer emigrated from Somalia and Myanmar and had been waiting months, if not years, for relatives to join them. Now they’re afraid that reunion might never happen. As a result, the plant in Fort Morgan and other meatpacking plants in the U.S. that have dozens of openings may have to scramble to find a new labor pool.”

The Bloomberg writers explained that, “Trump’s decision to sharply curtail the number of refugees admitted into the U.S. may lead Big Meat to recalibrate its recruitment practices.  While a federal court has temporarily suspended the administration’s four-month ban on new arrivals, not affected is Trump’s plan to slash refugee admissions from 110,000 to 50,000 in the current fiscal year.

Refugees have been a fixture within the meat processing workforce since 2006, when immigration officials under President George W. Bush raided plants in several states, leading to the arrest of about 1,300 undocumented workers. Companies ‘realized that their business model of hiring undocumented people was causing problems for them,’ says Lavinia Limón, chief executive officer of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a resettlement organization. ‘So they moved to the refugee population.’

Immigrants hold 35 percent of the 441,000 animal slaughtering and processing jobs in the U.S., according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Analysis: How to Solve a Labor Shortage, More Than a Pay Raise

A recent news article explored how one farm coped with a labor shortage problem, although the story pointed out that the solution may not be able to be replicated across the industry.

Natalie Kitroeff reported in Thursday’s Los Angeles Times that, “The biggest fresh garlic producer in the nation is giving its employees a hefty raise, reflecting the desperation of farmers to attract a dwindling number of farmworkers.

“Christopher Ranch, which grows garlic on 5,000 acres in Gilroy, Calif., announced recently that it would hike pay for farmworkers from $11 an hour to $13 hour this year, or 18%, and then to $15 in 2018. That’s four years earlier than what’s required by California’s schedule for minimum wage increases.”

Last week’s article pointed out that, “Ken Christopher, vice president at Christopher Ranch, said the effect of the move was immediately obvious. At the end of last year, the farm was short 50 workers needed to help peel, package and roast garlic.

Within two weeks of upping wages in January, applications flooded in. Now the company has a wait-list 150 people long.

Ms. Kitroeff indicated that, “The shortage of workers is one reason farms have cut back production of fruits and vegetables by 9.5%, costing growers $3.1 billion in lost revenue, according to a 2015 report by the Partnership for a New American Economy, a nonprofit that promotes immigration reform.

“‘It’s continuing to become more acute as fewer new workers come into the country to do agricultural work, and experienced workers here are aging out of the industry,’ said Jason Resnick, vice president and general counsel for the Western Growers’ Assn. trade group.”

However, the L.A. Times article did state that, “Throwing money at the problem hasn’t solved anything yet, because it isn’t drawing in workers from other industries.

“‘The one constant is that no matter how much we pay, domestic workers are not applying for these jobs,’ Resnick said. ‘Raising wages only serves to cannibalize from the existing workforce; it does nothing to add new laborers to the pool.'”

Concluding, the article stated that, “‘I see this as an example of enlightened management, that realizes agriculture needs to adjust to a new world in which there will be fewer farmworkers than before,’ said [Edward] Taylor, [a researcher at] UC Davis.”

Keith Good

Keith Good is the social media manager for the farmdoc project at the University of Illinois. He is well known in agricultural circles for the daily FarmPolicy.com News Summary.