Ag economy keeps Mexican workers home
Lower labor supply, higher wages mean fewer workers north
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
Changes in Mexico's agriculture are prompting more workers to remain south of the border, driving up competition for labor with U.S. farmers, according to a migration study.
Broader social changes in Mexico, such as a reduced fertility rate, are also shrinking the overall supply of workers available to the agricultural industry, according to a report by the non-profit Migration Policy Institute.
"It's a pretty solid development," said Eleanor Sohnen, a policy analyst for the group. "The huge pool of lower-skill Mexican farm labor is not going to be there forever."
Farming in Mexico is becoming increasingly oriented toward exports, with producers selling off-season fruits and vegetables to major U.S. retailers, the study said.
Due to the volume and quality standards required, the crops are generally grown by larger operations that rely more on hired workers than the traditional small family farms, the report said.
Within Mexico, the popularity of supermarkets -- which have supply chain needs similar to U.S. retailers -- is also pressing farms to get bigger and more sophisticated.
Improved productivity and demand for labor have driven up wages, so Mexican laborers "may be opting to stay home rather than emigrate to work in agriculture abroad," the study said.
The share of Mexico's people employed in farming is also shrinking, Sohnen said.
Mexicans are achieving higher levels of education and earning larger incomes, she said. As the population gets wealthier, this creates new domestic job opportunities in the service sector.
Women are also more likely to join the workforce, which has made birth control more common and slowed the population's growth, Sohnen said.
The momentum away from farm work has been so strong that it wasn't hindered by the economic turbulence of recent years, she said. "Despite the recession and high unemployment, it didn't mean they were more likely to take ag jobs."
For U.S. agriculture, part of the solution will involve mechanization, but much of the "low hanging fruit" has already been reaped in that regard, Sohnen said.
Reforming the H-2A guestworker program to become less onerous and more accepting of non-seasonal laborers -- like those needed at dairies -- will help farmers become more competitive, she said.
However, policy reforms also face limitations, Sohnen said. In the past, immigrants have often left agriculture as soon as possible for other occupations.
"Legalizing that workforce does not mean you'll have that workforce next year," she said.
Gasperini said the U.S. needs a more extensive farmworker policy overhaul because the bureaucratic hurdles of the H-2A program severely constrain its utility to U.S. farmers.
Populations in Central America are relatively small, so the U.S. will eventually have to look beyond that region to China, the Philippines and Bangladesh for workers, he said.
Such changes will inevitably create management challenges for farmers, who are accustomed to Spanish-speaking workers, Gasperini said. Language and cultural differences will likely create difficulties.
"We might embarrass or offend them unintentionally so easily, or them us," he said.