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Regelbrugge: The Farm Labor Crisis: Imagined, or Real?

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In several recent columns, CNBC.com senior editor John Carneyhas dismissed any notion of a farm labor crisis, claiming that record farm profits suggest no such crisis exists. The senior editor’s all too common error is to grossly oversimplify American agriculture and draw the wrong conclusions as a result.

Carney needs to spend more time down on the farm — literally. And not just any farm. Maybe he should start with a Washington state asparagus farm. Growers there plowed under 15 percent of the crop this year because of a shortage of pickers.

Abandoning a field is a big deal because you don’t plant asparagus each year. It grows from long-lived roots that produce a crop each spring.

That’s just one example of the two different worlds of crop agriculture. The first involves commodities such as corn, soybeans, wheat and rice, which are typically grown on large-scale farms with highly mechanized processes. These crops require minimal hand labor: A mechanical planter puts the seeds into the soil, and a mechanical harvester reaps the grain.

Such crops have also historically enjoyed safety nets including government subsidies, price supports, crop insurance and disaster relief. More recently, they have benefited from major new subsidies for crop-to-energy programs, as with corn-based ethanol. As a result — to paraphrase “Oklahoma!” — corn prices are high as an elephant’s eye, and it looks like they’re climbing clear up to the sky!

But back on the ground, we also have crops that cannot be mechanized completely, or, in some cases, at all. Think apples, strawberries, blackberries, watermelons and peaches. These delicate fruits must be hand-picked to avoid bruises and blemishes that might make them unpalatable to consumers. (Read More:California Farm Labor Shortage 'Worst It's Been, Ever')

The care and harvest of these crops depends upon the skilled and trained eyes and hands of farmworkers, many of whom moved here from other countries. These fruit, vegetable, nursery and greenhouse crops are grown in a free and increasingly competitive global market. They do not receive federal subsidies or price supports, and insurance or disaster relief safety nets are more limited.

For perspective on Carney’s economic broad-brush painting, I turned to respected economist Stephen Bronars. Using the same USDA datathat Carney referenced, Bronars points out that just four agricultural commodities — corn, cattle, hogs and soybeans — accounted for almost half of all U.S. farm cash receipts in 2011. Receipts for those four commodities alone are up 33.5 percent from 2008 to 2011.

Income for all other crops and commodities is up a modest 6.15 percent. To use a different lens, those four commodities are responsible for 81 percent of the increase in farm cash receipts.

Carney mentions apples in Washington state. Though China now produces half the world’s apple crop, Washington still produces about sixty percent of America’s homegrown crop. But things aren’t all sugar- and cinnamon-spiced for apple orchard owners. As the apple harvest nears, the apple farmer is fully leveraged. Lines of credit are fully extended. All the production costs except for harvest have been incurred. The grower is on a tightrope; his financial fate hangs on the trees.

If Mother Nature cooperates, markets are good and enough harvest workers show up, it all works out. If any one of those variables goes negative, it can quickly mean a loss for the whole year. So when a respected apple grower reports he is short 500 harvest workers, it’s a crisis. If the weather holds, maybe it works out. If not, it can end in disaster.

In his latest columnon the agricultural industry, Carney dismisses that there is a problem in Georgia, which enacted a state immigration law that led to a labor disaster. Again, he mistakenly equates rising income from mechanized crops and livestock with success across all of agriculture, ignoring the evidence that Georgia growers of seven perishable, hand-picked crops such as blackberries and peppers have already lost an estimated $150 million, or 24 percent of the farm gate value for those seven crops, due to labor drought that followed the law’s passage. (Read More: Who's Picking Your Food?)

The estimated negative impact on Georgia’s economy overall was $391 millionand the loss of 3,260 jobs.

Why shouldn’t all American farmers just grow corn, wheat and soybeans — the machine-harvested crops? First, we would find ourselves in a new and unsettling “food-insecure” age where we turn to countries such as Chile and China to fill our produce aisles and the dairy case. A diplomatic crisis, or worse, and we start going hungry. (Read More:USDA Plans Regional Meetings to Address Drought)

Second, communities from Vidalia, Ga., to Visalia, Calif., would see their local economies shrivel on the vine. After all, the high-value, labor-intensive stuff, from apples to lettuce to watermelons, brings many times more dollars into the community. Farmers buy supplies, services and equipment, and farmworkers spend money at local shops, grocery stores and Laundromats.

Farm income on the whole is not a proxy for the existence of a farm labor crisis. American farmers who hire labor are making management decisions to scale back, or substitute crops. Foreign producers are increasing their market share. Dr. Ronald Knutson of Texas A&M University, testifiedbefore a Senate Judiciary subcommittee in October, 2011 on this issue stating, “Farm labor immigration policy will have a major impact on whether the fruit and vegetables used to improve the health of Americans will be produced in the United States or in foreign countries.”

The agricultural industry is as American as the pies it enables, and it has great potential. But, a dysfunctional farm labor system is its Achilles heel. Growers want to expand, to plant new varieties, to invest in farm worker housing and new equipment. But without a common sense labor solution, our apples will be Chinese.

Solutions are within reach. The labor instability in agriculture reflects some of the most broken aspects of our current immigration policies. Congress should create a practical, common-sense process for farm workers that actually works and holds everyone accountable. A solution is in the national interest. It will benefit every American who enjoys fresh, affordable American produce, milk, and meat.

Sector Watch - From the Farm to the Shelves:

- Caterpillar Inc.
-Deere & Company
-ConAgra Foods, Inc
-Tyson Foods, Inc
-Smithfield Foods, Inc
-General Mills, Inc.
-Kellogg Company
-Mead Johnson Nutrition Company

Craig J. Regelbrugge is a co-chair of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, and serves on the steering committee of the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, the leading coalitions seeking legislative reform of America’s antiquated immigration system. He was recently elected vice chairman of the board of the National Immigration Forum.

He is also the VP for Government Relations, American Nursery & Landscape Association. In his position, Craig oversees ANLA's government relations program, and relationships with national, regional, and state green industry groups.