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Growers say border policies a factor in Texas labor crisis

Labor shortages on US farms have been an ongoing issue for many years. In California, for example, the situation is impacting an increasing number of producers every year, adding to the overall cost of produce. There is now a growing labor problem in South Texas, which traditionally has been less affected than many other areas in the United States. 

"There has been a labor shortage nationally for numerous years," said Bret Erickson of J&D Produce in Edinburg, Texas. "South Texas has been relatively immune to this as we have always had a resident migrant population in this area, but in recent years we have seen a tightening of labor."

Fewer young people wanting to work in agriculture
Part of the issue is the fact that the average age of agricultural workers is on the rise. Fewer young people are willing to work in the fields and perform the tasks many of the prior generation have been doing for decades. "The younger generation are less willing to do the type of work that agricultural work demands," Erickson said. "A lot of the workforce crew are getting older, and as they retire, that workforce is not being replenished as quickly as it is being diminished. Therefore the labor pool is shrinking."

Dante Galeazzi, President of the Texas International Produce Association, has also observed this. He added that this problem is not only limited to migrant workers but extends to the broader labor force.

"Every year, the labor pool gets smaller and smaller," Galeazzi said. "The tightness in the labor market used to be confined to April and May, when the majority of commodities were in production. Now it is being felt as early as December. The further away from the border you get, the more the producers feel it because in the South, we have traditionally had a resident migrant workforce. Now, the shortage is being felt almost year round. People might ask why we don't employ more Americans. The fact is that this has been tried in states like Georgia. In 2014, that state initiated a program in an attempt to engage a broader labor workforce, but ultimately, many Americans are just not interested in the type of agricultural labor required, and therefore there are not enough people willing to work in this industry to the level that is required." 

Clampdown on illicit border activity affected work crews
A number of years ago, the Texas state government began reinforcing the border areas. Reports of drug smuggling along with other illegal activity prompted the public to demand more resources to combat this. Therefore, additional troopers were sent to the southern border with the aim of intensively searching more people and more vehicles. 

According to Erickson, however, this had an adverse affect on farming operations, with legal workers facing additional scrutiny and creating delays and discomfort. "The clampdown on immigration has been a challenge," he said. "There has been a lot tougher policing in recent years, which largely began when a surge of additional troopers were sent down by the State of Texas to patrol the border areas. The troopers had taken an aggressive posture in regards to seeking out and stopping illicit activity, resulting in a lot more people being pulled over, as well as trucks. This made it difficult for work crews to move about and in between work areas, which can be as far as 50 miles apart. Often there were upwards of 40-50 state troopers on certain stretches. Therefore, not only did it make farming operations more difficult, but it also had the consequence of scaring more workers away."

Border wall complicating issue
The border wall announced by President Trump has had some unintended consequences, according to growers. By all accounts, the actual structure is going to be located on land owned by US farmers. Not only this, but in some areas, the wall will be several miles north of the Rio Grande, creating a "no man's land" that is otherwise a fertile agricultural area.

"The issue regarding the installation of the Border Wall is much more complicated in Texas," said Galeazzi. "In other parts of the country, the US/Mexico border is located in the middle of the desert on wide expanses of flat land. However, the situation in Texas is unique, as the border is formed by the Rio Grande, forming a natural - and fertile - border area. Clearly, the construction of a border wall in the river itself is not feasible, and therefore the wall is being built on the flood levies on the north (US) side of the border."

Galeazzi pointed out that this land is not only owned property, but also viable agricultural land. "Many Texas producers grow their crops close to the river, because it is fertile land," he said. "Some of these levies that the wall will be built on are up to ten miles north of the river, meaning that this expanse between the wall and the river will become very problematical when it comes to performing agricultural operations."

Erickson also agreed, adding that there are numerous issues that appear not have been thought about. "This area will become a no-man's land," Erickson said. "Moving machinery in and out of this area will become hazardous. The Government is, in effect, ceding land. All of this will make the task of growing produce much more difficult and will only further accelerate the labor crisis."

The border wall will be built on prime agricultural land

Better border legislation required
Both Erickson and Galeazzi agree that border protection is necessary but are seeking less invasive ways to deliver outcomes. In addition, they speak on behalf of many growers who feel legislative reform is required to address the labor shortage, not only in Texas, but across the US produce industry. They feel that a more simpler migration policy will ease the burden on farmers as well as encourage more migrant workers to fill the labor gap.

"We all support the efforts of CBP in keeping the nation safe and in preventing any illegal activities from infiltrating the region," Erickson said. "We also support the use of technology as well as appropriate vetting when it comes to policing the border."

"As regards the migrant workers, some type of guest worker program should be implemented to allow more migrant workers to work legally in the United States," Erickson continued. "A component to allow easier day worker access should also be considered. We have had various programs throughout the years that have worked well and this is definitely something we have approached Washington over to ask them to come up with a better solution. Producers are even now beginning to explore the H2A program because labor is becoming such a limiting factor. This program initially appeared to be cumbersome and expensive, however now it is becoming a necessary alternative to overcome the current shortage."

The impact it is having on the industry is something that growers are concerned with. They are effectively turning their backs on any significant growth opportunities, simply because they don't have the workers to fulfil any additional production.

"As the issue lingers without any reform, the problem is getting worse," Galeazzi said. "Already we are at the stage where it is cutting into the viability of farming operations and discouraging farmers from expanding any acreage. Costs continue to rise and it is affecting all growers, whether they are onion growers, citrus growers, or vegetable growers. There needs to be some type of visa program that will allow more migrant workers to come, as well as bring those that are illegal into the legal framework. This will encourage more workers to come year after year."

"Agricultural work is labor intensive and requires people," Galeazzi concluded. "No amount machinery will entirely replace workers. If the United States wants to continue to support a viable agriculture industry, we need to find solutions to ease the burden on growers. We are counting on our elected officials to come up with the appropriate legislation to make that happen."

For more information:
Bret Erickson
J&D Produce
Tel: +1 (956) 380-0353

Dante Galeazzi
Texas International Produce Association
Tel: +1 (956) 581-8632