You've been hearing it everywhere: a shortage of illegal aliens has caused The Great Pear Crisis of 2006.
Senators Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and Larry Craig (R-ID) have been lecturing us on how $10 million worth of pears are rotting in the orchards of Lake County in northern California because there just aren't enough illegal aliens to pick them—not for love or money.
So, the Senators inform us, we need another Guest Peasant program to import more pickers or (so I gather) we'll never taste a pear again in our lives.
(Cue the voice of a hungry Homer Simpson in a reverie: "Sweeeeet juicccy pearrrsss").
Piling on, the Washington Post ran an AP story, complete with a quote from the appalling Tamar Jacoby, entitled Farms Facing Worker Shortage for Harvest about how we'll all be boiling old shoes to gnaw on for our suppers, or something, unless Congress opens up the borders further.
Needless to say, the article is lacking in evidence documenting a shortage of illegals other than the testimony of their employers.
You'll recognize these as the typical prefabricated "news" stories that the Open Borders lobby generates on autopilot to justify importing more cheap labor. It's in the same vein as The Everlasting Nurse Shortage that we've been reading for decades. Google lists 111,000 pages featuring the phrase "nurse shortage," even though economists point out that there's no such thing in a market economy as a "shortage": there is just a price that somebody with political influence (in the case of nurses' wages, doctors and hospital administrators) would rather not pay.
The amusing thing about the late-September round of Pear Pearanoia articles is that the local Sacramento Bee had already exposed them back on September 12, 2006 as the pre-planned product of growers trying to badger Congress:
"All year, California farm groups have complained that congressional inaction on overhauling immigration laws, coupled with tightening border controls, would lead to a critical shortage of labor.
"With harvest time having arrived, state agricultural leaders are preparing to join their counterparts from around the country this week for a major lobbying push in Washington. They have been gathering anecdotes describing what they say is a damaging labor crisis in the state: Overripe pears are rotting in Sacramento and Lake counties, peaches went unpicked near Fresno, and according to one industry group, at least a few farmers are contemplating a move to Mexico, where cheap labor is plentiful and legal."
Downing's article went on to debunk the main claim:
"So far, however, state surveys show no discernible drop in total farm employment for May, June and July, though an uptick in farm wages suggests a tighter labor supply…
"Looking only at state agricultural employment data, though, there's little sign of farm jobs going unfilled. The market usually varies seasonally with about 300,000 jobs in the winter rising to roughly 430,000 jobs from May through September. This year—at least through July, the latest figures available—was little different."
Metropolitan news outlets like the New York Times are particularly gullible when being snowed by the agricultural interests' public relations flacks. Big city reporters and editors just don't understand the peculiarities of agricultural economics:
First, the ungrasped key to understanding the Great Pear Crisis comes in the opening lines of Julia Preston's NYT article:
"The pear growers here in Lake County waited decades for a crop of shapely fruit like the one that adorned their orchards last month… 'I felt like I went to heaven,' said Nick Ivicevich, recalling the perfection of his most abundant crop in 45 years of tending trees."
Oh yeah? A basic rule of agricultural economics: a good year for a crop tends to be a bad year for the crop's farmers. When the harvest is abundant, prices go down and the cost of hiring enough labor to pick all the extra produce goes up. Sometimes it doesn't even pay to harvest the full crop.
Second, there are dozens of different crops. Every year there's an over-abundance of something.
If it's not pears, it's walnuts or strawberries or something else. That allows the PR consultants to concoct fill-in-the-blanks press releases about the shortage of ____ pickers long before the harvest begins.
Third, due to weather fluctuations, crops mature at different times, making efficient scheduling of labor difficult.
For example, according to Downing's Bee story, Lake County pears normally ripen after Sacramento Delta pears, so the same workers can pick both. But this year, unusual weather delayed the Delta pears—meaning the experienced crews were still tied up in the Delta when the huge crop in Lake County ripened on roughly its normal schedule.
This unavoidable uncertainty means that harvesting is prone to a hurry-up-and-wait syndrome making it an inefficient user of labor. Citing Philip Martin, the UC Davis economist who is the leading expert on farm laborers, Downing explained:
"The agricultural labor market in California differs from other industries in that the total number of laborers in any year is typically much larger than the number of jobs. A state study based on 2001 data found that while the number of farm jobs averaged 388,000 through the year, about 1.1 million different people filled those jobs."
In other words, the growers suck in three people from south of the border for every job they have on average.
The social problem with this inefficiency is this: the farm owners aren't paying the full cost of their illegal laborers. The farmers are massively cost-shifting to the public. We pick up the tab for their workers' medical care, their workers' children's education, and so forth. Thus, the inevitably awkward use of labor on farms exacerbates the growers' socialization of what should be their costs.
Fourth, farm jobs are a "gateway drug" for illegal immigration, luring in huge numbers of immigrants who get used up and then move on to something else, leaving the growers with a voracious hunger for new illegal immigrants.
For instance, pear-picking is a young man's job in California because there has been an endless supply of young men from south of the border to clamber up and down ladders.
In contrast, in Spain, growers have bought motorized picking platforms that don't burn out their employees as fast.
Fifth, the cost savings to consumers from cheap farm labor are minimal.
Of course, politicians who rely on agribusiness campaign contributions would have you believe otherwise:
"Feinstein predicted sharp increases in the prices of fruits and vegetables, and a revolt by consumers if they find themselves faced with 'buying lettuce at $2 a head or more, or broccoli at $5 a head or anything else because of the dramatic shortage.' [ A Plea to Save State's Farmers, By Carolyn Lochhead, San Francisco Chronicle, 9/30/06]
Oh yeah (again)? The official Consumer Price Index inflation rate for food and beverages was only 2.5% in the year ending last August, compared to an overall inflation rate of 3.8%.
"'If (the consumer) spends $1 on a pint of strawberries, the farmer's getting 18 cents. He gives about one-third of that to farmworkers, so they make 6 cents.' So even if the labor cost were to double, that would still only be a 6 cent increase per pint." THE IMMIGRATION DEBATE | Effect on economy depends on viewpoint, by Carolyn Said, May 21, 2006]
For many fresh fruits and vegetables, the price increase would be significantly less. And, over time, growers would mechanize or, in the rare cases where that was impossible, would shift their operations to Mexico.
Sixth, farm work attracts to America laborers who even by the standards of illegal immigrants bring minimal levels of human capital with them.
Many farmworkers from Mexico don't even speak Spanish. There are approximately 100,000 Mixtec-speaking Indians in California now. How they are going to assimilate into the American middle class when they haven't assimilated into the Mexican working class in the 485 years since Cortez?
Seventh, as historian Cletus E. Daniel has pointed out, the defining characteristic of California's corporate farms has been " the search for a peasantry." Does 21st Century California truly need more peasants?
"But the immigrants have a mismatch of skills: They are qualified for yesterday's jobs, which are the kinds of jobs that are going away."
But if California's Big Ag continues to get its way, these primitive jobs will be around forever—along with an endless stream of new peasants...and an endless supply of new social and political problems for ordinary Americans.