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Will US Citizens Harvest Crops?

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, April 17, 2009

Immigration is in the news again as the two largest US labor federations have announced agreement on a framework for immigration reform:

The agreement, supported by the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win federation, supports the legalization of the nation’s 12 million undocumented immigrants and the formation of an independent commission to analyze the labor market’s needs and assess shortages for the admission of future foreign workers. The unions oppose any new guest worker programs that would allow employers to bring foreigners in on a temporary basis.

That means the unions opposing AgJobs, which includes such a guest worker program.

President Obama has not made immigration reform a top priority and, in fact, there is some ambiguity on where he stands. He has spoken in favor of “comprehensive immigration reform” and seems to have changed the focus of workplace enforcement:

Perhaps most telling for those searching for hints on how Obama will approach this issue was the first immigration raid under his administration, which took place in Bellingham, Wash., in late February.

Nearly 30 illegal immigrants were arrested. But then they were allowed to stay and work so they could present evidence against the employers, who seem to be the administration’s chief target.

What is certain is that the bad economy has made people less sympathetic to the idea of foreign workers being needed, and The Wall Street Journal ran a piece announcing that Labor Set to Fight Over Guest Workers and included comments from industry luminary Bob Gray:

Such programs garner strong support from business, particularly agricultural interests, because the sector says it hasn’t attracted U.S. workers in recent decades. Business believes such programs are vital to filling labor-intensive, low-skill jobs that Americans shun.

“Because of domestic unemployment, the guest-worker program flies in the face of the perceived need for such a program,” said Bob Gray, chief executive of Duda Farm Fresh Foods Inc., a large grower, packer and processor of fresh fruits and vegetables in California and other states. “Still, we have the issue of whether American workers are willing to work outdoors, in fields and on farms. It’s the kind of work that is traditionally hard to recruit and fill.”

Of course The New York Times ran an interesting piece on how this issue is being resolved in Japan. The article is titled, For Young Japanese, It’s Back to the Farm:

YOKOSHIBAHIKARI, Japan — A motley group of unlikely farmers descended on the countryside here one recent Sunday, fresh towels around their necks, shiny boots on their feet.

“This is harder than it looks,” said Tatsunori Kobayashi, a spiky-haired janitor from Tokyo Disney Resort, as he tromped through a mustard spinach patch with a seed planter, irregular furrows stretching out behind him.

He is part of Japan’s 2,400-strong Rural Labor Squad, urban trainees dispatched to the countryside under a pilot program to put Japan’s underemployed youth to work tilling its farms.

Started last month as part of Prime Minister Taro Aso’s stimulus plans, the program stems from growing concern about both the plight of Japan’s younger workers and the dismal state of farms. In a play on words, the squad’s name in Japanese — Inaka-de-hatarakitai — is also its rallying cry: “We want to work in the countryside!”

… the government views the slump — Japanese exports fell almost 50 percent year-to-year in February — as a chance to divert idle labor to sectors that have long suffered from worker shortages, like agriculture. Many young Japanese, for their part, have shown a growing interest in farming as disillusionment rises over the grind of city jobs and layoffs. Agricultural job fairs have been swamped with hundreds of applicants; one in Osaka attracted 1,400 people.

“Young people want jobs, and farmers need the extra hands,” said Isao Muneta, an agriculture ministry official who coordinates the 1.3 billion yen ($13 million) program, part of a larger stimulus package. “It’s the perfect match.”

Whether it will save Japan’s deteriorating economy is something else. “Rural communities could benefit from an influx of young people,” said Masashi Umemoto at the National Agricultural Research Center. “But it’s unrealistic to look to agriculture as a solution to the country’s unemployment problems.”

He added, “There aren’t enough farming jobs.”

… Shinji Akimoto, who until recently worked in information technology, is not intimidated.

Fearful of constant staff cuts as business deteriorated, Mr. Akimoto, 31, quit his job last month and days later started training in Yokoshibahikari. His three-day, government-financed training program has been a succession of whirlwind lessons in rice and vegetable planting, cleaning pig sties and feeding cattle.

“I had nothing much to lose, and in times like these, I felt I needed to learn to make my own living,” he said. He chuckled and twirled a finger in the air. “Did you know pigs really do have curly tails?”

Mr. Akimoto’s team of 10 is a hodgepodge: the Disney janitor, a recently laid-off landscape artist and several college students. They all get 7,000 yen a day, about $70, and free food and board.

They all shared a common complaint: there was no convenience store nearby for drinks and snacks. One trainee persuaded a farmer to lend him his light truck, so he could get cigarettes.

“My friends think I’m crazy for coming here,” said Tomoka Inoue, 20, a management major who said she was widening her job search to include farming. “But I think people are becoming more aware of where our food comes from, and I want to get more involved with that.”

… but the government is going ahead with plans to begin yearlong farm intern placements later this year. Increasing agricultural employment is part of a new $154 billion stimulus package that Mr. Aso announced last week.

Mr. Kobayashi, the janitor at Disney, says his time as a trainee has helped him decide he wants to take up farming leeks, this town’s main crop. He intends to take another week off to train with a local leek farmer, Yoshinori Yamazaki, who is looking for someone to take over his farm.

“This is just too perfect,” Mr. Kobayashi gushed. He said leeks were his favorite vegetable, and he had read that they were easy for beginners to grow and bring in a stable income.

But Mr. Yamazaki, the leek farmer, was skeptical. “You can’t learn farming in just a year, or even several years. It’s a lifetime profession,” he said. “I worry this is just a fad. I’m worried that when the economy picks up, they’ll all flock back to the city.”

Which most probably will. We are too much the capitalists to think it impossible to get US workers to harvest crops and, indeed, there may be some possibility for summer programs or year-long internships that both feed off the interest in knowing where our food comes from and contributes to it. For decades there have been programs in which Israeli Kibbutzim attracted volunteer labor over the summer.

These are interesting types of programs and may be mutually beneficial for the industry and participants, but they are not a serious response to the overall need for labor in agriculture.

It is not that we could not possibly get US citizens to work; it is that the cost to entice large numbers to do so would be so great that either food prices would have to be much higher or the food would be produced outside the country.

What about the recession? Won’t that make US labor more available? To some extent, but not for the hardcore harvesting work. The Pundit Poppa used to export US produce to, among other places, the Dominican Republic so our family went on a trip there. The Pundit was a boy but remembers still the poverty — you couldn’t cross the street in Santo Domingo, the capital, without being surrounded by children begging.

Yet when our contact drove us through the countryside he pointed out people harvesting sugar cane — he also pointed out that in the rather poor Dominican Republic, they imported even poorer Haitians to harvest the sugar cane.

It is hard to imagine any circumstances in which large numbers of US citizens will start harvesting crops. Though if the recession continues, it is hard to imagine that the political environment will allow for a guest worker program. So we may be in for a difficult time on this subject.

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