High cost of ag labor shortages

High cost of ag labor shortages

Despite increase in domestic fruit and vegetable consumption, labor shortages limit growth in U.S. production.

MAUREEN Torrey, vice president of Torrey Farms in Elba, N.Y., farms 11,000 acres of a variety of fresh produce such as onions, cabbage and squash and also produces corn and other grains for the bulk market.

Previously, the farm devoted roughly 1,000 acres to corn, with work done mostly by machine, two temporary workers and a payroll of $70,000. In contrast, to produce 1,000 acres of onions, Torrey has to employ 50 year-round workers to plant, harvest and package the crop — a group whose salaries, 401(k)s and housing total $2.5 million.

In the last three years, the farm has been subject to several federal immigration raids that left Torrey short dozens of farm workers. In response, she shifted about 800 acres completely out of fresh vegetable production into bulk crops, slashing millions of dollars of payroll that could have circulated through the economy in upstate New York.

Bernie Thiel, owner of Sunburt Farms near Lubbock, Texas, views labor as the key issue limiting the success of his farm in recent years. In 2013, Thiel had only 75-80% of the workers he needed to harvest his farm's 250 acres of fresh vegetables. He lost entire fields because workers weren't available to help with the harvest.

"If I knew labor wasn't going to be an issue, I'd be expanding my squash production," Thiel said. "There is also definitely a market for cucumbers and bell peppers, but at this point, there is no way that I could even think about doing that."

Thiel worries that the longer U.S. growers have to operate without immigration reform, the harder it will be for them to provide American consumers with the produce they actually want.


Unbalanced response

Torrey and Thiel's stories echo those of many domestic vegetable producers looking to meet the dramatically increased produce demand in the U.S. over the past decade.

Between the 1998-2000 and 2010-12 periods, the amount of fresh produce Americans consumed grew by 10.5%. During that same time frame, the amount of fresh produce being produced by U.S. growers rose only 1.4%, according to a new report released by the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform and the Partnership for a New American Economy.

For fresh vegetables, the gap was even more significant: While Americans increased their consumption of fresh vegetables by 9.1% during that period, farm production of major fresh vegetables actually declined 3.5%.

In recent years, the share of fresh fruits and vegetables consumed in the U.S. that was imported has grown nearly 80%.

While just 14.5% of the fresh fruit Americans purchased in 1998-2000 was imported, that rose to 25.8% by 2010-12 (Table). For fresh vegetables, imports as a share of total spending climbed from 17.1% to 31.2% during the same period. Adjusted to constant dollars, that means the share of produce that was imported grew 79.3% overall.

"This means more produce is imported, and our economy loses millions of dollars and thousands of jobs every year," John Feinblatt, chairman of the Partnership for a New American Economy, said.

Had U.S. fresh fruit and vegetable growers been able to maintain the domestic market share they held in 1998-2000, their communities would have enjoyed a substantial economic boost, resulting in an estimated $4.9 billion in additional farming income and 89,300 more jobs in 2012 alone. Further, the U.S. gross domestic product would have been $12.4 billion higher in 2012, the report states.

Although experts often cite growth in international trade and an increase in free trade agreements as the key cause for the recent market share decline experienced by U.S. growers, the report points out that the challenges farmers had in finding sufficient labor to harvest crops and expand production played an almost equivalent role, accounting for 27% of the recent decline, compared to the 28% attributed to trade.


Growth in the share (%) of imported fresh fruits and vegetables as measured by spending, 1998-2000 and 2010-12


-Portion of domestic fresh produce-

Growth in the share


spending devoted to imports

of fresh produce




that was imported

Fresh fruit




Fresh vegetables




Fresh produce overall




Source: Partnership for a New American Economy.


Volume:86 Issue:12

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