Net Net: Promoting innovation and managing change
Net Net: Promoting innovation and managing change

Another Phony Farm Crisis


Here we go again. If it’s getting close to summer, it’s time to start reading about farm labor shortages.

“California's Central Valley farmers struggle with worker shortage,” warns the Sacramento Bee.

“Immigration crackdown in Ala. means farm labor shortage,” the Associated Press declares.

“Immigration issues at center of labor shortage for Washington State farmers,” Fox News trumpets.

That sure sounds like trouble.

Do you remember the great agricultural crisis of 2011?

The severe lack of migrant workers left crops rotting in the fields and orchards, devastating farm economies across the country. There were warning signs from all over the country.

From California:

Farmers across California are experiencing the same problem: Seasonal workers who have been coming for decades to help with the harvest, planting and pruning have dropped off in recent years. With immigration crackdowns, an aging Mexican population, drug wars at the border and a weakened job market in the United States, the flow of migrants has stopped and may actually have reversed, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy research firm that has been studying the trend.

The Washington apple growers blamed tensions around illegal immigration for a labor shortage. Alabama farmers warned of a “labor crisis” caused by laws aimed at illegal immigration. Similar laws in Georgia rendered the harvest “rancid.” Arizona’s illegal immigration measures were “destroying the state’s farm sector.”

This is why Americans farmers had such a devastating year last year.

Oh. Wait.

That’s not what happened at all.

Despite the dire predictions of labor shortages, American farmers had a record-breaking year of profits in 2011. Farm profits rose 24.1 percent last year, to $98.1 billion. Cash income, a measure of farm solvency, rose 17.8 percent to $108.7. Agricultural exports topped $137 billion. Crop receipts rose 16 percent. Livestock sales receipts averaged 17 percent higher than in 2010.

Never before in American history have farms been this financially sound and profitable.

"We're just experiencing the best of times," Bruce Johnson, an agricultural economist at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, tells the Huffington Post.

The Department of Agriculture doesn’t release more granular data by region and crop until August. But anecdotally, it seems like the horror stories of 2011 haven’t come true. In Washington, for instance, apple growers had a very good year.

You can expect to hear a lot about farm labor shortages over the next couple of months. But if last year is any indication, complaints about farm labor are not correlated for farm performance.

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