The agricultural labor shortage has less to do with the shrinking population of farmworkers than with its changing work habits, a new economic study found.
Since the late 1990s, the proportion of farmworkers who regularly migrate from place to place has decreased from about 50 percent to less than 20 percent, said Maoyong Fan, an economist at Ball State University and the study’s lead author.
“The key problem is not that we have an absolute smaller number of farmworkers, the key problem is they’re not willing to move to take multiple jobs,” Fan said.
While the farmworker population dropped about 9 percent during the time period Fan studied, more than 1 million remain in the industry.
“It’s not a dramatic decrease that would cause this labor shortage,” he said.
The percentage of migrating farmworkers remained stable through the 1990s but has declined significantly since the turn of the century, partly due to more vigorous border enforcement since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Fan said.
“I was shocked by the magnitude of the decrease,” he said.
Farmworkers are less likely to travel between the U.S. and Mexico due to stricter enforcement, but that’s not the only reason for the shift, Fan said.
Mexico’s birthrate has fallen, so fewer young workers are available, while the country’s economic situation has improved, reducing many citizens’ willingness to migrate, he said.
Immigrants already living in the U.S. have formed stronger social networks, so they can help new arrivals find work without using agriculture as a “stepping stone,” he said. “They can find jobs in the city. Agriculture is bypassed now.”
The study also noted changes in the demographic makeup of farmworkers. They’re now more likely to be older, more experienced and living in homes with their immediate families, none of which contributes to their willingness to migrate.
Dan Fazio, executive director of the WAFLA agricultural labor organization, said the study is “absolutely consistent with what we’ve seen in the field.”
Many farmworkers traditionally earned enough money during the growing season to return to Mexico for the winter, Fazio said.
As the border became more difficult to cross, they’ve stayed within the U.S. and acquired year-round jobs to sustain themselves, he said. “Now seasonal agricultural work is a lot less attractive.”
Farmers have responded by growing multiple crops that are harvested in succession, allowing them to retain farmworkers for longer periods, Fazio said.
They’ve further stretched out the growing season with fruit cultivars that ripen earlier and later than the normal season, he said.
Fan said it’s probable that the phenomenon of farmers retaining workers has contributed to their reduced willingness to migrate.
While an economist’s typical solution to labor shortages in an industry is higher wages, growers would argue that profits are too thin to make such increases possible, he said.
Expanding the H-2A guest worker visa program would alleviate the tight labor market, Fan said. “If we can make that easier, it’s a better solution for this labor shortage problem.”