Even as they plant this spring, many American farmers will face an ongoing problem at harvest time—having enough workers to pick their crops.
And a remedy to the shortage is unlikely anytime soon—and not even immigration reform, currently stalled in Congress, would do the trick, said one analyst.
"There's a perception with farmers and others that immigration reform will help legally bring in more farm workers," said J. Edward Taylor, a professor of agriculture at the University of California, Davis, and an expert on immigration and farm labor issues.
"But it really won't solve the shortage in the long run, if they do pass a reform bill, " he said.
Taylor, who co-wrote a paper this month on farm labor challenges, noted that the main provider of low-wage agricultural workers in the U.S., at nearly 70 percent, has been Mexico.
But Mexico is drying up as a source. That's because rural Mexicans are getting a better education, courtesy of more government spending, and rejecting farm work, even in their own country.
"The nonfarm economy in Mexico is growing and it's creating new jobs that require engineering and managerial skills and giving better wages," said Taylor. "That's where young people are going."
Taylor also said this switch in career goals is adding to the worker shortage as older farm laborers in the U.S. are ready to stop working and aren't going to be replaced. And any replacements that might be on their way have been stopped by tougher border controls and increased deportations.
However, it's not only Mexico's younger generation that's rejecting the harder farm work, said Charles Trauger, territory manager at market data firm GlobalView.
"Americans themselves don't seem willing to take the harder farming jobs," said Trauger, who has a farm in Nebraska.
"Nobody's taking them. People want to live in the city instead of the farm," he said. "Hispanics who usually do that work are going to higher paying jobs in packing plants and other industrial areas."