National Editor Tom Karst
National Editor Tom Karst

The USDA ERS has published a digest version of a longer economic study on immigration.

Called "Immigration Policy and Its Possible Effects on Agriculture," the article looks at long-term scenarios of agricultural employment.

In my reading, the report itself supports an "immigrant friendly" attitude for farm labor. I'll get into some of the conclusions a little bit later.

The report also does a nice job of putting in perspective the fruit and vegetable industry's reliance on labor compared with the rest of agriculture.

For example, the article cites research that indicates labor accounts for just 5% of the production costs for field corn, compared with 48% of the variable expenses for fruit growers and 46% for vegetable crops.

For the overall average, hired farm labor accounts for 17% of all variable production expenses for U.S. agriculture.

From the study:

The farm labor situation is complicated, however, by the fact that many U.S. farmworkers lack the immigration status needed to work legally in this country. Analysis conducted by Daniel Carroll, Annie Georges, and Russell Saltz using the U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey indicates that over the past 15 years, about half of the hired workers employed in U.S. crop agriculture were unauthorized, with the overwhelming majority of these workers coming from Mexico. Similar survey-based information on immigration status is not available for workers in livestock and dairy production.

TK: Bottom line, the study says that removal of the undocumented labor force in the U.S. without a rise in the number of agricultural guest workers would spell doom.

Take away 5.8 million undocumented workers from the U.S. farm labor supply in the next 15 years. the study says,  and fruit, tree nuts, vegetables and nurseries would suffer a decline in output estimated to range from 2% to 5.4%. Exports would sink from 2.5% to 9.3%.

In contrast, if the supply of temporary non-immigrant (read guest worker) foreign born workers increases by 156,000, output by fruit, vegetable, tree nuts and nurseries would increase between 1.1% to 2% and exports would climb in a range from 1.7% to 3.2%.

Case closed, then. Legalize all current farm workers, get serious about border enforcement and ramp up the guest worker program.