I’m usually a big skeptic when it comes to labor shortages in agriculture. I put on my reporter hat and ask: are these shortages real, or are they just slogans used by the agriculture industry to advance an agenda? I say this, because for years – for decades – the U.S. had been awash in farmworkers streaming in from Mexico. Labor was plentiful as the unauthorized immigrant population ballooned… and yet, employers still complained of shortages. Sure, changes in crop patterns, stringent immigration laws in some states, or drastic weather changes might shift harvests and lead to a temporary need for more workers. But overall, farm labor has been plentiful for a long time.
This slowly changed in recent years. The recession in the U.S., an improved economy in Mexico, changes on the border and other factors contributed to the shrinking of mass migration from Mexico. Though the unauthorized population has now stabilized, mass migration of years past hasn’t resumed. And so, labor shortages.
There’s one way to tell whether shortages are real: and that’s to look at the wages of farmworkers. Last year, and even more dramatically this year, the wages and working conditions of workers have actually improved. Based on my conversations with workers, contractors, and farmers, labor is very tight. To be clear: crops are not rotting in the fields and consumers won’t see huge price increases. But for the first time, working in the fields means getting a better wage. As Fresno-area labor contractor Jesus Mateo put it: “For the first time, I can demand a living wage for my workers.” He also said, “Before, people were begging for work and some employers skimped workers on wages. Now the roles have reversed, with growers asking workers to come. And if the grower doesn’t want to pay, people will walk off his field.” Read my story here: AP-Labor Shortages