Future of Foreign-Born Labor in U.S. Agriculture

The future of foreign-born labor in U.S. agriculture was the subject of a two-day national symposium July 10-11, 2012, in  Chicago.  A collaboration of AGree and Farm Foundation, NFP, the symposium was organized to increase understanding of the challenges and opportunities associated with foreign-born labor in U.S. agriculture; identify options for policies and programs to address these issues; and provide a forum for continuing conversations among key stakeholders.

Review the symposium summary.

Human capital needs in food and agriculture is one of the four key areas of focus for the Farm Foundation initiative, A Dialogue on Food and Agriculture in the 21st Century, which creates opportunities for stakeholders to deliberate critical issues facing today’s food and agricultural systems. Other areas of focus for the Dialogue Project are: goals and priorities for North American agriculture; adaptability and resilience in food and agriculture; and the role of science and technology in agriculture.

Strengthening farms, workers and communities is one of four challenges being examined by AGree as part of its work on U.S. policy affecting food and agriculture systems.

In 2011, there were 40.3 million foreign-born immigrants in the United States, of which 37% were naturalized citizens, 31% had legal permanent resident status, and 11.1 million were unauthorized, according to Jeffrey S. Passel of the Pew Hispanic Center. Among the unauthorized migrants, about half are adults with children, some of whom are U.S. citizens.

About 75% of the hired workers in U.S. agriculture are foreign-born, and about half are unauthorized immigrants, according to Phil Martin of the University of California, Davis. Unauthorized workers are employed in fruit and vegetable production, livestock production and in the food processing sectors.

The 50 participants in this week’s symposium included agricultural growers, leaders of farm worker organizations, and representatives of other organizations working on agricultural labor issues.

“We invited thought leaders in agriculture and labor to come together to have open and frank discussions about this very critical issue,” said Deb Atwood, executive director of AGree. “The common goal of symposium participants was to identify ways to achieve a stable and legal workforce for U.S. agriculture.”

“As we address the challenge of how to double food production by 2050, it is imperative that we fully understand the role of labor and the long-term implications of our reliance on a foreign-born workforce,” said Neil Conklin, president of Farm Foundation, NFP.

Several themes emerged from the two-day discussion:

  • The immigration system in the United States is broken, profoundly affecting agriculture and other key economic sectors.
  • While agricultural labor issues are most commonly associated with fresh fruits and vegetables, foreign-born labor has a significant role in livestock production, grain production, and food processing.
  • Agriculture has unique labor supply and demand challenges due, in part, to short harvest windows for crops, difficult working conditions and specialized skill requirements.
  • A clear legal framework is needed that provides certainty to employers, as well as a secure work environment for workers and their families.
  • Many employers and workers expressed interest in working together on this issue to find solutions.
  • Policy reforms will be difficult to achieve unless workers and farmers speak with a single voice.
  • The agriculture work force and the demand for food are global in nature.
  • Education is needed to help the general public, as well as public and private decision makers, understand the issues and make informed public policy decisions.


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