Farmers Find Rotten Apples in Trump’s Ag Policy Barrel

By Glen Martin

President Trump’s positions on immigration and trade are causing some queasiness among people who largely supported him during the campaign: farmers. The reasons are straightforward enough. Oft-repeated protectionist sentiments raise the possibility of a trade war that could throttle U.S. food exports, and Trump’s fixation on building a “beautiful wall” on the nation’s southern border threatens the agricultural labor force.

Anything that could crimp US exports is especially worrisome to farmers, including California farmers. To a very real degree, the world is more interested in what we grow than what we make these days, and the tasty delicacies produced in the Golden State are in particularly high global demand.

“Basically, the US is making other countries rich by buying their extruded plastic products,” says California Farm Bureau Federation president Paul Wenger. “In turn, they want to buy our food. Fifty-four percent of the containers leaving from the Port of Oakland contain agricultural products. And of those containers, 80 percent contain products from California farms.”

A lot of those California containers contain high-value specialty crops such as almonds, walnuts, pistachios, and various fruits and vegetables; all sell at premium prices. So any policy that could evoke anything smacking of a trade war makes California farmers blanch, acknowledges Wenger.

“Eighty percent of California’s almonds and 66 percent of our walnuts are exported,” says Wenger, who raises both nut varieties in the San Joaquin Valley. “So while we don’t think a trade war will actually happen, we’re nevertheless concerned.”

Gordon Rausser, a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at UC Berkeley, says that US crop exports are likely to suffer under “protectionist memes” propagated by the administration.

“Anywhere crops are grown in this country, the backbone of the workforce is Latino.” And it’s not just production, says Card. The nation’s food processing sector also depends on Latino labor. “Vegetable processing, meat packing: all of it depends on Latino workers.”

“Trump and his advisors, especially Steve Bannon, believe strongly in protectionism,” says Rausser. “It’s clear that if they get an opportunity to walk away from the World Trade Organization, they will. “We’ve spent the last 50 years working under the WTO’s General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade to level the playing field. It hasn’t been perfect, but many growers, including California nut, citrus and vegetable producers, have benefited hugely. If Trump is successful in turning away from these agreements, agricultural commodity exports will suffer immensely.”

Rausser observes that the impact will be compounded if Trump is able to secure legislative approval for his proposed border tax, which could impose levies of 20 percent on US imports.

“A border tax will give a huge boost to the U.S. dollar,” says Rausser, “and that will further erode US imports, including California agricultural produce. A strong dollar makes our exports more expensive to importing countries. And that pain would be further compounded by the reduced prices growers would get for their products if they had to sell mostly in the US. Given that 80 percent of the state’s almonds are exported, the prices for almonds would decline dramatically if growers were suddenly forced to sell most of their nuts domestically because their foreign markets had dried up.”

As noted, labor issues are also contributing to agriculture’s growing unease with Trump. American agriculture depends on foreign labor. More to the point, it depends on the labor of Latino immigrants.

“As much as 70 percent of US farm labor is done by Latino immigrants, mostly Mexican immigrants” says David Card, a Cal economics professor widely known for his labor market research. “People tend to think of them as central to agricultural operations in California, Arizona, Texas, and Florida, but they’re critical to agriculture across the entire country. A lot of sugar beets are grown in the Red River Valley in North Dakota, and that’s dependent on Latino labor. There’s an area in Pennsylvania that grows a lot of mushrooms—virtually all Latino labor there. Anywhere crops are grown in this country, the backbone of the workforce is Latino.”

And it’s not just production, says Card. The nation’s food processing sector also depends on Latino labor. “Vegetable processing, meat packing: all of it depends on Latino workers,” he says.

Trump’s fulminations against undocumented immigrants already are exerting a dampening effect on people trying to come into the US—and not just illegally, says Card.

“There already are huge problems with immigration, and it’s clear to me that, explicitly or implicitly, the [directives] are coming from the top,” says Card. “I’m a Canadian citizen with a green card. I’ve applied for US citizenship. I’ve traveled and come back to the U.S. three times recently, and each time I was hassled about my entry. Each time I was threatened with seizure of my green card. Now, I’m an extraordinarily white person, and the situation is significantly worse for people of color, or people from countries other than, say, Canada. People come up to me every time I give a talk on immigration with horror stories about themselves, their family members, or their friends.”

The irony is that immigration from Mexico and other Hispanic countries had fallen dramatically before Trump took office, Card says. After 9/11, policy changes that required employers to verify the identification of laborers have greatly reduced the number of undocumented workers getting hired, reducing incentives for illegal immigration.

“Also, Mexico’s economy has improved significantly over the past decade,” Card says. “It’s not fantastic at this point, but it’s much better than it was, and it’s absorbing greater numbers of workers. So there is less and less need for people to go north.”

Cal Agricultural and Resource Economics professor Jeff Perloff generally agrees with Card’s assessment. Perloff conducted a study that found that the miles farm workers travel within the borders of the United States have dropped dramatically, declining by about 40 percent since 1993.

“Farm workers typically work a crop in one state, then when they’re finished they move on to another state and work a different crop,” says Perloff. “Our figures are for both documented and undocumented workers. We can’t prove that fear of being caught by ICE was responsible for the decline, but it’s likely that fear is at least one of the factors. In any event, significant limits to entry have been imposed on the agricultural labor market. That has resulted in a reduced labor pool, and one that is both older and more female in its makeup. An older agricultural labor force that skews female travels less than younger, male-dominated work forces.”

As a result, growers already are dealing with labor shortages, some of which have been exacerbated by policies stimulated by anti-immigrant fervor.

“We had ICE raids in California a couple of years ago right at the peak of the nut harvest that were very disruptive,” recalls Wenger, “and it’s been worse in other states. About four years ago, the Georgia legislature passed very tough legislation that required growers to e-verify all workers. The result is workers just bypassed the state. Typically, workers harvested crops in Texas, then moved on to Georgia to work peaches, then traveled to Florida to work on a variety of crops. But after that law passed, they just drove through Georgia, stopping only for gas. Peach growers couldn’t get any help. Their fruit rotted in the orchards.”

Given that labor shortages are likely only to get worse under Trump, many growers are hoping to eschew human workers altogether. American agriculture already is highly mechanized, and the trend is accelerating.

“And it’s not just due to too few workers,” says Rausser. “A friend of mine grows almonds, and he says when the California minimum wage rises to $15 an hour [in 2023], he won’t be able to justify human labor inputs. So he’s planning to move completely to robotics, or to as great degree as possible. And he’s not alone. Research and interest in agricultural robotics is skyrocketing. There’s tremendous investment from private equity and hedge funds in the sector. We’re even seeing machines for crops that have always been viewed as too delicate for anything but human harvesting, such as lettuce and strawberries.”

The H2-A visa closely resembles the foreign worker programs of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, nations notorious for laborer abuse…“It’s depressing. I really don’t think Saudi Arabia should be our standard for immigrant labor.”

Card thinks there’ll also be increased pressure, to which Trump may acquiesce, for the issuance of more H-2A visas, which allow foreigners to temporarily enter the United States for agricultural work. Many of these visas have already been granted, says Card – about 90,000 in 2014 alone, with 83,000 going to Mexican laborers.

“Growers love them,” Card says, “and they’d like to have a lot more people come in on them.”

H2-A visas require employers to pay for transportation to and from the laborer’s country of origin, and supply free housing and meals. But the reality doesn’t always jibe with the regulations, says Card.

“[H2-A workers] are essentially indentured laborers,” he says.  “They can only work for the employers who bring them in, the housing and meals may be inadequate, and they don’t always get paid minimum wage.”

Further, the H2-A visa closely resembles the foreign worker programs of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, nations notorious for laborer abuse.

“The way things are going, that could well become the model for western countries,” Card says. “It’s depressing. I really don’t think Saudi Arabia should be our standard for immigrant labor.”

Wenger says farmers generally are concerned about the welfare of their laborers, and support meaningful and humane labor reform.

“We need them,” he says, “and we need to find a way to get documentation for the people who don’t have it. If you think you’re going to ship 11 million people out of the country, people with families and roots in our communities, you’re kidding yourself. It’d be incredibly disruptive and unjust, and I don’t think the American people would stand for it.”

So are farmers having buyer’s remorse about Trump? Maybe, says Rausser.

“I have family members who farm, and they were very enthusiastic about Trump,” he says. “Now some of them are beginning to wonder.”

Wenger says farmers weren’t so much besotted with Trump as disillusioned with Hillary Clinton, and that their support for the president shouldn’t be taken for granted. Farmers, in short, may be bonded to the soil, but they tend to take any politician with a grain of salt.

“You look at Wisconsin dairy farmers, and they’ve always voted Democrat,” Wenger says. “They were part of that Blue Wall that crumbled. They just didn’t like the candidate this time around, and they were ready for a change. Farmers are more conservative than the electorate as a whole, but there are a lot of farmers who are Democrats out there: conservative Democrats, yeah, but still Democrats. For myself, I’ve had farming friends call me a bleeding heart liberal, while others call me a redneck. At this point, we’re not going to have another choice for four years, so you work with what and who you have. We’re going to keep farming, and see where it ends up. You can drive yourself to drink, but if you do that, all you’ll end up is drunk.”

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In the summers of the early 1950s as a high school student I worked in the peach orchards outside Merced, in the San Joaquin Valley. We did did pretty much all the chores, starting with the early grafts, propping up the fruit-laden branches and finally to working during the late summer harvest. As I spoke Spanish passably well, I was assigned to record a harvest crew’s individual picking records for each crew member. This was the “Bracero” program. Organized by labor contractors, the crews arrived in mid-summer by bus and were housed and fed in the company-maintained barracks and mess hall. As they were paid by the number of crates each one harvested, the crews worked hard! They earned their pay and often returned in subsequent years. When the JFK administration entered in 1961, the Unions went to D.C. complaining about their stagnant membership rolls. They had observed the organizing efforts of the young Cesar Chavez, and wanted to bring those efforts under their aegis (and into their membership). The Unions and their minions convinced the new administration to terminate the Bracero program. Wham! Suddenly there was no more opportunity for farm works to easily to cross the border into and out of the U.S. Wham! Farmers no longer found it relatively easy to contract farm laborers for the harvest season. Laborers already in the U.S. stayed, while many tried to enter illegally. Faced with a tight farm labor market, farmers hired undocumented workers. Illegal border crossings and illegal hiring soared. The tragedy of unintended consequences! Del Fitchett, Economics Ph.D., 1963, Berkeley
Del, I’m very glad you commented on this post because, like you, my wife are also members of the class of 1963. I feel that we are members of what must very well be the Luckiest Generation because we received so many excellent opportunities produced by the sacrifices of the Greatest Generation. My gravest concern today is for the legacy that we are leaving for the newest and all future generations, because our generation has so far failed to perpetuate the legacy that we were most privileged to receive. So my question to you as an economist is, do social scientists have solutions to the problems we have failed to prevent, including global warming, worldwide violence and inequalities, that can be implemented today so as to pass on at least the same quality of life that we have experienced?
Here we go again yet another Academia based article with folks like “David Card, a Cal economics professor” who teach because they can’t DO. Note to you “journalists ” who cover immigration.. more interviews and research with those who DO H2a. I am the largest H2a user ( non association) in the USA I can assure you thru deed and my check book the claim “[H2-A workers] are essentially indentured laborers,” he says. “ the housing and meals may be inadequate, and they don’t always get paid minimum wage.” is absolutely FALSE and based in academia ignorance to truth and reality and lack of Journalistic integrity in validate these asinine claims. You want to talk reality and truth about how the H2a program works, contact me ..
Technically, I am Pomona ’58, and received my Doctorate is the Occult Sciences from Berkeley in ’63. I would suggest that you look askance at economists or other social scientists who tell you that they have the “solutions to the problems we have failed to prevent, including global warming, worldwide violence and inequalities, that can be implemented today”. An honest(?) economist could suggect that he might be able to help you in separating out some of the major economic issues and trying to assess major economic costs and economic benefits which pertain to the feasible alternative approaches which one should assess. You should bear the responsibility for choosing a course(s) of action. If the individual starts making the choice for you, watch out for your pocketbook and effective suffrage.
Thanks for you honesty Del. The root cause of our failures to protect the human race according to evolutionary biologists like Ornstein, Ehrlich and Wilson is modern problems, like global warming, have exceeded the speed of our evolution to enable us to plan and implement actions to prevent them from getting out of control, threatening our very existence today. We respond to immediate threats, still similar to hunter-gatherers, and we are not yet wired to deal with long-term, far-away future threats. I mention social scientist with the hope and prayer that they might be our last, best option to figure out how we can overcome our wiring limitations. Current events prove daily that we are totally unable to unite enough individuals to make a difference before things get completely out of control. Even the UN is a total failure at this because of politics, greed, conflicting interests, etc., as Syria just proved again. Will and Ariel Durant concluded in their “The Story of Civilization” that “when a group or a civilization declines, it is through no mystic limitation of a corporate life, but through the failures of its political or intellectual leaders to meet the challenges of change.” Churchill was the last leader to save our civilization, and we have no such leaders today.
Alas, one can hope that any proposed “cure” is not worse than the “disease”. History is partly a long tale of countless “Don Quijotes”, many apparently noble and well-intentioned or perhaps scoundrels. Honestly exercised, some social “sciences” may provide some guidance, but trying to implement feasible solutions will depend on “well-intentioned” and often imperfect human leaders.
Thanks again for being so candid, you have confirmed my gravest concern about our inability to produce and implement solutions to our greatest threats, including worldwide terrorism and inequalities, global warming, etc. in time to keep them from getting completely beyond our control. God Help our Grandchildren and all future generations!
Anthony, I try to avoid what some might perceive as an overly pessimistic outlook and rather try to remain something of a (qualified) optimist. Rather than a rectilinear vision of history (and that yet to come), I would opt for sort of a Hegelian dialectic where research and reasoned discourse could help us avoid a cataclysmic denouement. (Even if what some may perceive as a screwball over in the PDRK launches a nuke!) Of course, this is no guarantee that less than cataclysmic events may not occur. And by all means continued prayers to God may help!
Del, I have been studying subjects such as those we are discussing, subjects that I never had a chance to study before I retired in 1999. Relative to your last comment I have two references you might find interesting: 1. CALIFORNIA magazine published a “Global Warning” special issue in 2006 with a most important cover story “Can We Adapt in Time?” 2. Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center website, especially their emphasis on Mind and Body and the Joys of Nature