Ag labor shortages defy easy fixes

Eric Mortenson/Capital Press Burr and Rosella Mosby farm row crops near Auburn, Wash. They wonder why the guestworker issue has to be so complicated.

PHOENIX — Washington state vegetable farmers Burr and Rosella Mosby shifted in their seats and furrowed their brows as they listened to a panel discuss immigration issues during a session at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual convention.

USDA economist Tom Hertz was providing some troubling numbers for the Mosbys and other farmers who depend on workers to plant, prune, pick and pack their crops. “We hand-harvest everything,” Burr Mosby said.

Mexican immigration to the U.S. has been declining since 2007, Hertz said, and the number of Mexican-born people in the U.S., legally or illegally, has dropped from 13 million to an estimated 11.7 million in that time. The crop workers remaining are getting older: 14 percent were 55 or older in 2013-14, compared to 11 percent in 2007-09.

That’s a concern because the ability to do manual labor declines with age, he said. Also, the percentage of workers who are settled in one spot, not migrating from job to job, has increased to 84 percent from 74 percent during that time frame.

Hertz said a USDA study compared two immigration reform options. Expanding H-2A ag worker visas would add 156,000 workers to the farm labor workforce, he said, while cranking up deportations would remove an estimated 5.8 million unauthorized workers, 40 percent of the ag workforce, over 15 years.

He said removing workers would force producers to pay even higher wages to those left behind, at a time when labor costs as a percentage of farm expenses are leveling off.

The Mosbys don’t believe expanding the H-2A program is a cure for agriculture’s labor shortage.

“I just don’t know why it’s so complicated,” Burr Mosby said after the panel discussion.

Mosby Farms grows row crops on 350 acres in the Green River Valley near Auburn and sells to Safeway, Kroger and wholesalers. The farm employs about 100 people during the “heat of the battle,” a four- to six-month season. The Mosbys said they pay $11 to $12 an hour for basic laborers, more for supervisors, but are short 10 to 15 workers each season.

Getting more workers through the H-2A program would cost more. The Mosbys said they would be required to pay $12.47 an hour, provide housing and pay for transportation to and from Mexico. They live in King County, south of Seattle, and housing is extremely expensive, they said.

Mosby, a first-generation farmer, said his farm’s income went down this year by 15 cents to 25 cents per box of produce. “Our insurance never goes down,” he said. “All the other costs, food safety (regulations) — the overhead a farm carries is a lot more than it used to be.”

Mosby said many producers can’t afford to hire H-2A workers, and a simplified guest worker visa would be a better system. He said Mexican workers, assuming they pass criminal checks, should be allowed to come work on his farm, stay with relatives who are already here, and then return home after a set period of time. The practice would eliminate the housing crunch cost, and his employees have siblings and cousins who would take part, Mosby said.

He said one of his employees, now 82, is still working on his original “green card” that was issued in 1954. “When he was doing it, it was simple,” he said.

“If the one percent are supposed to feed the 99 percent of America, why hold us at gunpoint over labor?” Mosby asked. “Why are they not more willing to give us more manpower? We need more hands. We can feed the world if they give us a chance.”

His wife, Rosella, said the choice is clear. “We can import labor or we can import food.”

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