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In A Pickle: Big Agriculture Anxiously Awaits Trump's Policy On Migrant Workers

April 13, 2017 9:48 am
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Farmers are poaching each other’s migrant workers, rushing to develop robot field hands and abandoning some crops altogether because of a shortage of seasonal workers that poses yet another predicament for President Donald Trump.

“There’s going to be a collision of interests and we’re already seeing it on the West Coast” where Washington cherry farmers are luring Oregon’s strawberry pickers with higher wages, said James Moore, a political scientist at Pacific University and an agriculture analyst.

“It’s going to take a crisis in agriculture” to get the president’s attention, Moore said. “Looking at our Syria policy, events can jump up and change what Trump said he was going to do.”

Trump, consistently inconsistent and unclear about the issue of migrant farm workers, can’t slash undocumented migrants without dealing a severe blow to the nation’s agricultural economy, analysts say.

Trump Has 3 Options, None Good For Him

As if his young administration isn’t crowded with enough quandaries, Trump has three choices when it comes to agriculture. Each of them carry the risk of alienating what’s left of his support.

    1. He accepts the fact that exhaustive studies have proven Americans won’t work the fields and will have to keep letting foreigners in at an even higher rate.
    2. He angers Big Agriculture by restricting work visas, forcing farms to accelerate their costly moves toward glitchy robotic field hands — which still can’t tell if an apricot is ripe.
    3. The government and the market decide to increase food imports, which runs counter to Trump’s protectionist desire to tax foreign goods.

“It’s three-way choice: mechanize, import workers, or import the commodities,” Philip Martin, professor emeritus at the University of California-Davis and one of the leading farm labor economists in the nation, told Benzinga.

“The most likely scenario is some combination of more mechanization and more guest workers, but not more U.S. workers in the fields.”

The Visa That’s Vital To Big Ag

Although he has called for abolishing work visas for skilled foreign workers, Trump has been largely mum on a type of visa covering seasonal migrant workers: The H-2A.

The H-2A visa grants temporary work visas for up to three years, but it’s controversial among both farmers and advocates for migrant workers.

Farmers have long complained about red tape; the worker must apply at a U.S. Consulate, and the prospective employer must prove that no American wants the job.

Advocates for migrant workers say the program is unfair because it binds them to a single employer and makes them more vulnerable to exploitation, in effect a bond of servitude.

If Trump makes good on his promise to slash illegal immigration, he’ll have to deal with the fact that more than half of the nation’s farmworkers, according to Martin, are undocumented.

The irony is that the Trump clan itself has used the H-2A program to staff a winery. Son Eric petitioned the Labor Department in recent months to import 29 H-2A workers to tend his Virginia vineyard.

Despite the unhappiness with the program and because of the urgency of the labor shortage, workers certified as H-2A nearly tripled in the last 10 years, Martin said, from 59,100 certified in the fiscal year 2006 to 165,700 in fiscal 2016.

Slowdown In Migrant Workers Preceded Trump

The meltdown in badly needed yet unauthorized workers from Mexico began with the 2008 recession.

That period, said Martin, is similar to patterns in the 1960s, when the administration of former President John F. Kennedy slashed the numbers of migrant workers and found that Americans didn’t rush to replace them.

Today’s seasonal migrant has aged demographically and is more likely to live close to where they work. If they are undocumented, they are unlikely to get their paperwork sorted out for fear of arrest.

They are just as unlikely to go home for fear the anti-immigrant sentiment will keep them from returning.

“What’s going to happen when they rip these people out of our economy?” asked Ray Johnson, executive director of the authoritative Wine Business Institute at Sonoma State University's School of Business & Economics.

“That worker is no longer a migrant. You have a substantial number who settle in the community and they might not have the right documentation. Would I risk all of that if I did not have the right paperwork?”

As the sole visa dedicated to seasonal migrant workers, the H-2A visa has advantages.

Johnson recalled a recent conversation with members of the Dutton family, prominent vinters in wine country who have embraced mechanization and the H-2A. They brought up 80 men from Mexico, nice and easy with no legal hassles.

“There are successes that are working right now and people don’t want to see them screwed up,” Johnson said.

Necessity, The Mother Of Invention

As Darwin’s Law proved, animals must adapt or die. Martin outlined how farmers are dealing with the labor crunch and the looming monolith of uncertainty that is Trump:

  • Using more modern machinery to pick and plant. The problem with this method, though, is fruits and vegetables ripen unevenly, and machines aren’t smart enough to decide if a kumquat is ready to go. Yet.
  • Bioengineering, or modifying the farm product itself. Dwarf trees can produce apples and cherries that can be harvested without ladders, increasing worker productivity.
  • Chemicals: Already used to harvest tree nuts, chemicals are used that allow workers to merely shake the trees and the ripened nut falls to the ground.
  • Switching crops. California is being blanketed with almond crops (see: Chemicals). Smaller raisin growers that can’t afford the mechanical aids large vineyards use — ripening grapes on the vines and then using machines to shake them off — are selling out to larger growers and switching to nuts.

Big AG Vs. GOP?

Moore sounds fascinated by the hypothetical day when hardscrabble farmers and the suits at Big Ag might team up to rue the day they supported Trump.

Moore even has a theory about where Ground Zero of Big Food’s meltdown could come. The Salinas Valley, which supplies the world with most of its broccoli and lettuce.

The $9 billion industry, pretty much in California’s Monterey County, could be the proverbial canary in the coal mine. If it goes, Big Ag has its housing crisis.

And no matter how big a wall he builds, Trump loses in an eyeball-to-eyeball fight with Big Ag and its many recipients of campaign contributions in Congress.

Media reports have focused on efforts by an energized Immigration and Customs Enforcement's cadre of agents kicking down doors at the border, but Moore says it’s just the media glomming on to the enforcement angle to sync with the Trump era.

In reality, ICE is overmatched by an economic imperative, not to mention highly motivated and quite overwhelming numbers who have leverage on a global scale.

“There aren’t enough ICE agents to catch all the undocumented workers,” Moore said.

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