This study from the Center For Immigration Studies confirms something we've said before about farmers, "crops rotting in the fields," and mechanization—the decision to grow the kind of crops that will rot in the fields if farmers don't have corrupt access to illegal labor is an economic one.
It's the same as deciding whether it costs more to get the gold out of a mine than it's worth, or whether a retail store is making enough money to pay its employees and suppliers. We may owe a lot to farmers, (I ate today, how about you?) but we don't owe them so much that we want to make them rich off cheap labor and tax dollars.
- Production of fruits and vegetables has been increasing. In particular, plantings of very-labor intensive crops such as cherries and strawberries have grown by more than 20 percent in just five years.
- The average farm worker makes $9.06 an hour, compared to $16.75 for non-farm production workers.
- Real wages for farm workers increased one-half of one percent (.5 percent) a year on average between 2000 and 2006. If there were a shortage, wages would be rising much more rapidly.
- Farm worker earnings have risen more slowly in California and Florida (the states with the most fruit and vegetable production) than in the United States as a whole.
- The average household spends only about $1 a day on fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Labor costs comprise only 6 percent of the price consumers pay for fresh produce. Thus, if farm wages were allowed to rise 40 percent, and if all the costs were passed on to consumers, the cost to the average household would be only about $8 a year.
- Mechanization could offset higher labor costs. After the ”Bracero” Mexican guestworker program ended in the mid-1960s, farm worker wages rose 40 percent, but consumer prices rose relatively little because the mechanization of some crops dramatically increased productivity.
- Labor-saving mechanization can be difficult for one farmer, since packers and processors are usually set up to deal either with hand-picked or machine-picked crops, but not both. Government has a key role to play in facilitating mechanization.
Farm Labor Shortages: How Real? What Response? By Philip Martin, November 2007 [PDF]