Immigration on the Farm

Every now and then FFM staff reads an article that we wish to share with our broader audience. Here we highlight the article "The High Cost of Cheap Labor" by Brian Barth summarized by Kirsten Breau.

Barth, Brian. “The High Cost of Cheap Labor.” Modern Farmer, Modern Farmer, 21 Feb. 2017,

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Immigration legislation has become one of the most divisive policies under the current US administration. Headlines describe children forcefully separated from families at the border and major cities cutting ties with ICE over policies that are harmful to immigrant communities - even at the cost of millions of dollars in revenue for the local governments. Amidst the Trump administration’s aggressive crackdown on immigration, a major concern for farm owners is labor shortage. According to a 2009 survey by the US Department of Labor, 67% of all farm workers are not US citizens and 93 percent of all immigrant farmworkers in the US hail from Mexico.

In the article, “The High Cost of Cheap Labor” by Brian Barth for Modern Farmer, Barth recounts how the facilitated movement of individuals across the border has ebbed and flowed based on the US’s perceived labor needs. The Great Depression pushed the US to deny and deport those seeking employment, while WWII led to the “Mexican Farm Labor Agreement” which welcomed people across the border to fill labor shortages. The “Mexican Farm Labor Agreement” program was shut down in 1964 because of worker accusations of abuse and US citizen’s complaints about being robbed of jobs.

A case study conducted over the course of fifteen years, 1998 through 2012, in North Carolina looked into the claim that US citizen’s job security was negatively affected by migrant labor. Barth summarized the findings,

              “Upon being advised about openings on area farms, less than 0.1 percent of                                                   [unemployed individuals], on average, asked to be referred each year. Of the                                           several hundred referred, 97 percent were hired. Of those, less than half                                                 reported to work on the first day. And in no year did more than 11 individuals                                         finish out the season on a farm.”

The year those 11 individuals completed a season on the farm they represented only .004 percent of North Carolina’s unemployed population. It's clear immigrant labor is crucial for agriculture, a strike organized by Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and the National Farm Workers Association in the 1970s caused national lettuce prices to double overnight. The US is especially vulnerable to these price spikes as we expect and insist on unsustainably low food prices, a sign of our populations growing distance from and ignorance around food production.

A number of farm owners have taken it upon themselves to create safe and sustainable practices to protect this vulnerable population that our food system is so dependent on, even before national trends financially support these moves. Barth highlights a number of farms with Food Justice certification or programs constructed around fair wages, sick days, paid holidays etc. Valuing the workers who do the jobs that many refuse, because it’s an opportunity that they didn’t have in the homes they left behind. A farmworker interviewed whose name was changed for the publishing of the article summarized, “We didn’t come here to take anyone’s jobs away. We came to escape the poverty that we have in our country and to provide our children with a better future.” In turn they provide the backbone of our country’s food system.

Image from the article.