If We Want American Farm Workers, We Have to Offer Even More [Opinion]
Nationwide, the number of full-time equivalent farm workers declined by almost 22% from 2002 to 2014, according to the Partnership for a New American Economy, which wrote an in-depth analysis of government data on agriculture. The loss in labor was considerably higher in some regions of the U.S, including the Southeast (down 26.9%), defined as Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, and California (down 39.4%), where the drop in labor mostly happened prior to the drought.
With Congressional attitudes to immigration so entrenched, what steps can the U.S. take to ease some of the labor shortage? With common-sense immigration reform unlikely, our most obvious solution is in a holding pattern for the foreseeable future. That means we’re left with stitching together a series of small fixes.
Here are two ideas that may have a small but positive impact. Both are ways to give students a lot more incentive to work on farms.
Have Colleges Offer Credit Hours and Approve Internships
Gracy Olmstead, a talented young writer with the online magazine, The Federalist, tackled that question through the lens of recruiting college students.
She has two main proposals:
- Have colleges allow farm work to qualify for sanctioned internships, giving students an income and credit hours.
- Integrate farming more closely to college life, including campus-owned small farms and community gardens.
I was especially intrigued with he first proposal. Anything that helps a student gain credit hours will attract attention. Her underlying premise here is: How can we make farm work make enough sense to young workers that they’re willing to spend their summers out in fields?
Her idea to lobby colleges into rewarding students on farm work is a good start. It’s a great launchpad for a broader discussion on how we can give Americans a strong incentive to value farm work.
But I think it can go further. Which leads me to my own suggestion:
Lobby for a Farm-Work-based Student Loan Forgiveness Program
The U.S. has several programs that are designed to send experts into areas where their skills are desperately needed. For example, if you’re willing to spend at least two years as a primary care physician in an area where you are needed, you can have up to $120,000 of your student loans forgiven.
These types of programs are primarily used for skilled workers like teachers, medical professionals, lawyers, and so on. It’s a way to ensure that everyone, no matter how remote the rural location or how economically challenged the inner city neighborhood, has access to these professionals.
Farm shortages have reached the point where labor is badly needed. Sounds like it’s ripe for this type of program.
For farm labor, this would be less focused on newly minted master or doctoral level graduates and more focused on bringing strong bodies and intelligent minds to bear on the farm labor shortage. It would be more generalized, perhaps even sandwiched between school years or a year prior to school starting to help them bring down their college costs to a more affordable level, while earning a decent wage.
Like Teach For America and the medical programs, it would help fill gaps in the labor shortage, not solve the issue. But it could potentially have wide-ranging impact on how society views farming.
If enough college students took advantage of this program, a greater awareness of issues agriculture face would help growers. When policies written from a point of ignorance were created, more people could engage politicians and insulate growers from the worst of these.
Such a program would also make a college education available for families who cannot afford the high tuition rates of secondary education. The average basic costs for four years at a public school is now $74,528, and averages $151,960 for private schools. That’s more than double the costs in 1984 (controlled for cost of living values).
For the promise of a lifetime of more secure work a college degree can offer, a lot of families would push their children into this type of program, offering growers more motivated workers than local students tend to be.
The dogma today is that Americans will not work in farm fields. And that is true for the way things stand now. A $10 to $20 per hour wage hasn’t proven to be enough incentive to attract laborers to hard, sweaty, and uncomfortable jobs.
So the incentive needs to rise. When it comes to college students, credit hours, internships, and tuition forgiveness are strong motivators. Perhaps enough to move the needle for fruit and vegetable growers.
This is the perfect time to lobby for changes. The consumer press has been reporting on the farm labor shortage on an almost daily basis. This kind of spotlight offers an opportunity for us. If you want the labor situation to change, now is the time to pull together and hammer out solutions, even small ones like the two outlined above.
There is no silver bullet to kill the beast that is the labor shortage. But if enough innovation takes place in enough areas, growers can create a labor supply for themselves that will sustain their operations long into the future.