The sourcing of farm labor, from slavery and serfdom to indentured servitude and modern wage labor, has consistently spurred global migrations.
Due to acute labor shortages and the economically favorable conditions following the Black Death, most of Western Europe abolished slavery and serfdom within their borders by the end of the Renaissance. The rebounding populations necessitated new sources of farm labor. Economic growth right after the Industrial Revolution was stymied by the need for wheat and coal. With increased demand from Western Europe, Russia, long the world's largest grain producer, did not abolish serfdom until the 1860s.
Colonial United States faced many of the same problems. The burgeoning landowning class would finance peasants’ journey across the Atlantic in exchange for four to seven years of hard labor.
Landowners quickly realized indentured servitude alone would not provide enough labor for the newfound bounty of land under American possession. By 1776, nearly 20 percent of the population consisted of Africans brought to the United States for slave labor. The share of the US labor force working on farms also peaked around this time. In 1810, just before the Industrial Revolution, farming employed 80.9 percent of the country.
The Emancipation Proclamation and the Homestead Act, signed months apart in 1862, fundamentally reoriented the nation’s agricultural industry, which then still employed over 50 percent of the population. Without a free source of labor, the rapidly expanding Western frontier witnessed a number of disruptive innovations as the Southern economy lay in ruin.
By 1839, John Deere had famously produced his first plow using saw blade steel. Without farm animals, tilling an acre of land with a spade took 96 hours. With a farm animal and crude wooden plow, it would take 24 hours. With Deere’s plow, tilling took only five to eight hours.
Over the next several decades, innovations would be combined and further refined. The introduction of portable steam engines in 1849 paved the way for self-propelled combined harvester-threshers, better known as combines, by 1886. Within a century, US agriculture had transformed into a largely machine-oriented industry capable of feeding the world. By 1910, just 31.4 percent of the country would be employed by farms.
Farming, here and now
The number of farm operations in the US dropped from 6.4 million in 1910 to just 2 million in 2016. At the same time, the number of hired farm workers dropped from 13.6 million to 730,800. What is even more astounding than how these demographics have changed is where.
Row crops and livestock, the main agricultural industries of the Midwest and Northeast US, have both continued to mechanize since the end of the World War II.
Row crops—specifically corn, soybeans, and wheat—have modernized rapidly. In 1950, the North Central region (which includes Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas) employed 3.3 million farm workers. In 2016, that number was down to 170,000.
While row crop farmers and the Midwest may soon be witnessing the large scale adoption of driverless tractors, the situation among fruit, vegetable, and tree nut farmers, located primarily in the South and West, could not be more different.
Southern and Western farm laborers make up a disproportionate and increasingly large share of the US’ agricultural labor force. In 1950, just 4 percent of the nation's farmers were located in California. That number has climbed to 22 percent in 2017 and, when combined with Texas, jumps to over a third. California also employs over 30 percent of the nation's undocumented laborers.
Although the USDA stopped reporting survey data for self-employed and unpaid labor in 2001, the composition of respective labor forces highlights California’s fundamental reliance on hired labor relative to the greater US.
Undocumented, highly demanded
Californians are no strangers to migrant farmers. Although John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath famously chronicled two men heading from Oklahoma to California, the state’s farm workers were originally from the Far East. By 1886, between 80 and 90 percent of farm workers were from China. After the Chinese Exclusion Act, landowners had to look elsewhere for low cost labor. Filipino workers were common at points too, but once they began to organize, Mexican laborers became the cheapest option.
California has vacillated in its demand for Central American laborers, at times welcoming workers across the border and other times forcefully relocating them back. Although the efforts of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta have helped bring rights to these workers, little has changed in regard to landowners’ need for labor.
Focused primarily in agricultural regions with low levels of mechanization, undocumented immigrants provide the overwhelming majority of labor for America’s farms. In California’s vast Central Valley, between 70 and 80 percent of all farm labor is provided by undocumented immigrants, according to researchers at the University of California, Davis. Undocumented immigrants are so ingrained in California’s economy that they became eligible for driver’s licenses under a new state law in 2015. In 2016, California Governor Jerry Brown signed historic legislation allowing farm laborers to receive overtime pay.
Even with wages that fall just below $14 an hour, or almost $4 above the state minimum, these changes are unlikely to attract more Americans.
Although pay is relatively high, the work still suffers from extreme seasonality. In July 2016, California employed 180,000 hired farm laborers, including undocumented migrants. By January of 2017 that number had dropped to 125,000. The uncertainty of the number of agricultural labor jobs left in California is further compounded by the state’s erratic climate. Most of all, Americans appear to simply not want to do the work at the prevailing wage level, an issue which is exacerbated by the recent overall strength of the nation’s economy.
Even during the financial crisis, when both US and California’s unemployment rates peaked above 10 percent, farmers faced difficulty staffing their fields. A part of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, the H-2A visa program attempts to solve this issue by granting short term agricultural work visas to foreign nationals. In exchange, the law strongly encourages farmers to hire local labor first by requiring farmers to advertise their jobs in at least three states and prove that they could not hire others first. Despite these incentives, farm owners still complained that local laborers were neither plentiful or reliable enough to staff their fields during harvests.
Perdue is likely well aware of this reality. During his tenure as Governor of Georgia, Perdue oversaw one of of the country’s toughest immigration crackdowns in recent years. Employers in Georgia who knowingly hire undocumented workers now face serious sanctions and other punitive measures. Unsurprisingly, a labor shortage followed the passing of the law, and many of the state’s fruit and vegetable farmers—of which Georgia is one of the country’s largest producers—could not find enough workers to harvest their crops. This mismatch in supply and demand contributed to an estimated $140 million in agricultural losses in 2011.
Despite Perdue’s recent statements, most farmers, especially those heavily reliant on seasonal labor from migrant workers, have been especially concerned with what might come next from the USDA secretary.
From the abolition of slaves and serfs to the modern migrant laborer rights movements in California, the source and flow of laborers has also shaped both our politics and food supplies. The often contradictory nature of the statements from President Trump and Secretary Perdue serve as a testament to the complexities of the relationship between laborers’ rights and the food that they produce. As supply chains continue to become more globalized and opaque, such as in the seafood and shipping industries, demand often dictates reality more than policy.
If Trump and Perdue decide to extend new visas or create other programs that continue to permit migrant laborers in the US, the status quo will remain. An expansion of the H2-A visa and reduction of red tape for employers would also help. Simultaneously allowing more migrants and more enforcement action against employers who skirt the rules—many of whom, regardless of local labor supply, still pay undocumented laborers less than they report in order to reap higher profits—may therefore help migrants, ethical employers, and the government.
If Trump and Perdue embrace their rhetoric and actions of the past, however, a few things are likely to happen. First, US fruit, vegetable, and nut producers will feel an immediate squeeze in the labor force, driving up costs for consumers. In California, which produces the majority of the country’s lemons, strawberries, grapes, avocados, peaches, artichokes, broccoli, lettuce, carrots, and peppers (among various other crops including many tree nuts), an immigration crackdown would be especially painful.
Depending on the point of the season in which the government pursues undocumented immigrants, consumers could see higher prices. If a crackdown takes place between May and August, when most crops are harvested, California’s crops could go unharvested, forcing food suppliers to scramble and compete for costly imports.
More likely, Perdue and Trump will want to ease the pain of producers by giving them ample notice. If enacted in the winter, or on a rolling basis, American consumers might simply pay for added shipping costs. Tree fruits and nuts might be the exception, as they take years to bear fruit, and other export markets might not be able to respond to increased US demand.
Producers will feel the pain either way, due to unavoidable jumps in production expenses. Even in the midst of the US Recession, the commodity downturn, and California’s recent drought, agricultural land values have continued to rise in California, which will further constrain farm margins.
Already suffering under a strong US dollar, producers who rely on exports may go bankrupt in a worst case scenario. Industry demand will skyrocket for new technologies aimed at further mechanizing any process which still requires labor as an input.
The big winners may be indoor, vertical farms. Adept at growing large amounts of produce in extremely tight spaces, indoor farms have long been at a disadvantage due to the abundance of sunlight and soil provided freely by the land. Yet recent technological advances, such as LED lights which waste negligible amounts of heat compared to previous models of light bulbs, have already made indoor and vertical farming ventures far more feasible. Moreover, cheap labor is abundant in most cities, and the proximity to large consumer markets will inevitably reduce transportation costs. Thus, with the new motivation for increased research and development, these operations could hasten the development away from labor as an agricultural input.