Ag Labor is a Complex Issue; Mechanization Even More

By Jim Manos, Hickman’s Family Farms Chief Financial Officer: America lost its manufacturing industry to foreign companies in large part due to labor issues. And the remaining manufacturing jobs have largely been lost to robots. Farming is starting down the same road, I am afraid. I feel much more comfortable watching a TV made in China or driving a car assembled in a Ford plant in Mexico than I do feeding my grandkids food from a country whose commitment to food safety pales in comparison to ours. We worked very hard to not be dependent on foreign countries for oil and yet we seem to be ok going down a path that would lead us to be dependent on foreign countries for food.

We in Agriculture have spent millions on robots, yet nine of the top ten metropolitan areas with the highest unemployment in the country are in Arizona and the farming areas of California. The top two, the two metropolitan areas with the highest unemployment as of March of this year, are Yuma and El Centro. In areas where we cannot find enough people to work in our fields, unemployment is close to 13%. In a recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal, the writer spoke of a major lemon grower in California who raised his starting wage to $16 per hour and boosted retirement benefits by 20%, only to lose his workers to the vineyards in Northern California who were paying more. According to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are currently 150,000 unfilled construction jobs across the country. This is a problem whose solution lies not solely in immigration reform.

Have you ever thought of yourself as an addict? Hopefully, most of you will nod your head no. But Agriculture, not just in the West but all over the United States, has become addicted to the immigrant laborer to do the work that we cannot entice our citizens to do. And by utilizing this low-cost labor, we have caused another addiction. The American people are addicted to low food prices. And like most addictions, this could kill agriculture as we all know it and end up killing people as food prices rise to compensate for the additional costs of dealing with no labor source. I know that sounds dramatic, but it is difficult to look into the future and not see something that drastic. The paradigm has to change.

It is easy to blame our shrinking labor force on the new administration’s crack down of undocumented laborers but it is way more complicated than that. Having our new Attorney General putting fear into the hearts and heads of every undocumented person living in the States, including those who had felt somewhat safe as DACA exceptions, is not helping our labor issue. But he and the whole Trump administration are not the only cause of the loss of immigrant labor. The Obama administration started the ball rolling by deporting undocumented laborers at a record pace. True immigration reform has been kicked down the road for far too long. Yet, our immigration policies are not the only cause of this labor shortage.

Mexico, a country which is over 80% Catholic, has always had a birth rate and population growth rate commensurate with a strict adherence to religious guidance on birth control. And their economy was such that it made risking everything to earn a livable wage in the United States and easy decision for anyone who cared about providing for his or her family. But that is changing. Their population growth rate ranks 102nd in the world, while the U.S. is at 135. Both are at just about 1%.  They have a contraceptive prevalence rate of 72.5%, just shy of our 76.4% (all these figures are from the CIA website). And they have a smaller percentage of their population in the prime labor force ages of 25-64 than we do. Their 2016 unemployment was actually lower than ours. Yet they still have a way higher percentage of their population under the poverty line.  Of significant note, though, their GINI index (a measure of income inequality) is falling whereas ours is growing. A smaller number indicates less income inequality.

Distill all this data and the conclusion can only be that we are going to lose a substantial portion of our immigrant workforce from Mexico regardless of our immigration policies. And even though the rates of migration from Central America have increased, logistics will keep that from replacing what we lose to Mexico. And, as more and more manufacturing is relocated to Mexico and because their government may recognize their own need for cheap labor, these migrants may never reach Laredo, Texas, El Centro, California or Yuma, Arizona.

The loss of the migrant workforce is not our only labor issue. There are many other contributing factors. As our unemployment ranks shrink and our minimum wages go up, the attractiveness of working in a cool Walmart is much better than working in a hot, stinky chicken house. Figure in that most agriculture by necessity has to be located outside of urban centers and the in-city Walmart job looks even better.  The labor pool lives in cities and our work resides outside.  Our Tonopah facility is an hour’s drive from the center of Phoenix. And ironically, even locating it that far away, we are still accused of destroying the beauty of the “Next Scottsdale.”.

Another contributing factor is one rarely discussed, but I think it is about time it is addressed. We have over 10 million Americans collecting social security disability insurance benefits. Five times as many Americans are collecting a DI check as work in Agriculture. And the rates of those collecting it in rural counties, those more likely to support agriculture, are much greater than those in urban areas, where the only farms consist of a couple tomato plants and maybe one or two hemp plants.   A Washington Post article found as many as one in three working age adults in rural America collect disability checks. It has become a sort of de facto non-employment welfare benefit. I am not implying that all or even most recipients are on the dole to avoid work. There are very many people who have physical limitations severe enough to preclude them from working. But we need to make sure we are doing everything we can to treat them and rehabilitate them so that they can rejoin the workforce. We cannot afford the billions of dollars, an estimated $192 billion this year. That is more than we spend on food stamps, welfare, housing subsidies and unemployment insurance….COMBINED. More importantly, we cannot grow our GDP without a workforce and taking 10 million or so people out of the pool is significant.

Could we not better spend that money on providing the healthcare necessary to get these people working, job training to get them employable, relocation assistance to get them to where the jobs are and life style lessons to get them to change the habits that are exacerbating their health issues. There is an excellent article in the Washington Post (Disabled or Desperate) about four adults in rural Alabama all on disability. The one lady has a back issue yet drinks 24 cans of Mountain Dew a day. One has cirrhosis of the liver. They all smoke. Somehow we have to convince people that their choices play a part in their health and their resultant life. They are all praying for better health. It reminds of the story of the man who tells his parish priest that he is disappointed that God has never answered his prayers by letting him win the lottery. The priest asks how many tickets he buys and the man replies he doesn’t buy any. He just prays.

One way we can start effecting this change is to change our food stamp, or SNAP, program.  This program should be used not just to keep people from starving but also to teach them about the importance of nutrition.  One in two deaths in America, not to mention the millions of people on disability, can be traced to improper diets. Strokes, heart disease and diabetes are all nutrition related. There is a hospital in Pennsylvania that has started a healthy food pharmacy. Geisinger Health is experimenting with giving away fresh fruits, vegetables and lean meats to their diabetes patients. They meet weekly with a dietician and so far the results are promising (NPR.org). So why do we give people free access to crap. Soda, sugar laden and fatty foods with no nutritional value can all be purchased with food stamps. Candy, soda and chips. So we pay for the junk that gives them the disease, pay for them to live when it causes them issues that keep them from working and pay for their medical treatment. Regardless of how you feel about welfare and the social safety net, this is not the answer. We may not be able to stop cancer but we can control many deadly and debilitating diseases through better life choices. And the answer lies in Agriculture which could then reap the benefits of a larger, healthier workforce. Win win.

So, I know this panel discussion is supposed to be on immigration reform. And we do need that. Some sort of worker visas only makes sense. But it is time, way past time in my opinion, that we start looking at fixes to problems that take into consideration all the different influences. We decide to stop the few deaths caused every year by undocumented laborers by creating a gigantic labor shortage. We try to solve hunger by allowing diets that cause diabetes and heart disease. We try to save money on healthcare and then pay people to live who are too sick to work. We live in a complicated world where every action causes ripples in many lakes. We don’t want to spend the money to train or relocate people, so we diminish the work force and pay them $1000 per month. We cannot continue to try and put Band-Aids over one wound only to discover we have put the whole country in anaphylactic shock. I think we could better use the $192 billion we spend on disability and the billions we spend on SNAP by putting people back into the workforce.

The final issue that exacerbates of labor force issue is the amount of governmental and social conscience restraints put on us. We need to work with governments, environmental groups and animal rights groups to reach agreements on how we can continue to produce quality food in the most economical and efficient way possible. I am all for a clean environment. As farmers we are more at risk to the dangers of climate change than just about any other industry, save maybe those that operate ski resorts. But let’s work on meaningful rules not rules for rules sake. Let’s not go backwards but let’s not also spend a billion dollars to cure a two bit problem.  I believe in the ethical treatment of farm animals. But ask those of us who do it every day which is better for the animal. The world is not going to go 100% vegan, so let’s work on methods of production that are efficient, safe and still take into consideration the welfare of the animal. As all of us know, the health of our business rests in the health of our animals.  There are good regulations and bad regulations. Let’s convince those in government to recognize the difference. Support the former and ax the latter. There is no farmer in this room that cannot say that nonsense regulations, environmental restraints that do nothing to protect the environment and the push from some animal rights groups does not cause additional labor. Nice triple negative, huh?

We need to have serious discussions with serious elected officials, about the paradigm shift that is necessary to move agriculture forward. As farming gets more and more automated and complex, we need more workers with the knowledge of how to grow and produce food better as much as we need those willing to work in a chicken house. We need to support education, especially emphasizing the opportunities that exist in agriculture.

Finally, we need to unite with one loud voice. What is good for the egg producer is also good for vegetable farmer. The more we splinter up and push for a solution that benefits our own thin slice of the pie, the more the whole pie becomes tainted. We need to work with, not against, groups like the Humane Society of the United States. Bifurcating the world into an us-against-them will only result in a weaker industry and a weaker country. Welfare reform, healthcare, immigration reform, and education all go hand in hand. So my solution to our labor issue is something farmers have always been very good at. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get down to the hard work of moving forward into this new world order.

Editor’s Note: This editorial was originally a speech given at an agriculture advisory meeting last month.

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