Immigrants, Robots, and the American Farmer

This article was originally posted on the Medium publication The Benchmark

Every fall, crops are harvested, and the seasonal workers return home. For many agricultural workers, that means returning to Mexico, Central America, and South America. Farmers throughout the US have always relied on immigrant workers to bring in crops, yet in the last few years, farmers have made more and more requests to bring immigrants in on temporary work visas. Applications to the H-2A visa program, which allows the agricultural industry to hire immigrants for seasonal help, more than doubled over the past decade.

Note: The 2019 Fiscal Year data includes only from October 2018 until June 30. The dip, as shown, may not be a meaningful decrease. Sources: Office of Foreign Labor Certification data taken from 2010 Annual Report2013 Annual Report2017 Fiscal Year Selected Statistics2018 Fiscal Year Selected Statistics2019 Fiscal Year Selected Statistics.

At least in part, the growing economy is driving farmers towards H-2A applications. Low unemployment, paired with economic growth, means that workers have options. As farmworkers leave the industry to find other work, US farmers are left without workers to bring in their harvests. While farmers have attempted to compete for workers with higher wages, better pay has not been enough.

This leaves farmers with two options: immigrants and robots. While current immigration policies may affect the first option, more of the agriculture industry is turning to robots.

As many other industries are finding ways for automation to lower their costs and better serve customers, farmers are embracing new technologies. On top of that, when economic growth gives US workers options outside of the agriculture industry and hiring foreign workers is becoming more expensive, companies are looking for faster ways to automate their work.

How the H-2A Visa Program Works

There are several requirements companies must meet to qualify for H-2A visas. For example, before US companies can hire immigrant workers, they must recruit domestic workers and document those efforts. If no domestic workers apply for those positions, the employer must prove that hiring workers through the program doesn’t harm US workers in the same industry. This is usually done through paying an “adverse wage rate,” which is paying H-2A workers a minimum wage set by the Department of Labor that is more than the minimum amount that other employers are held to.

On top of the adverse wage rate and the domestic recruitment requirements, employers who want to hire workers through the H-2A visa program must provide housing, transportation, and food to those that they employ. This can be a high cost and logistical problem. For example, towns where many H-2A workers live often restrict where the workers can reside. Santa Maria, California, for example, passed an “urgency moratorium” on housing more than six workers in a home zoned in a single-family area in June of 2018. A year later in June of 2019, the issue was not settled yet as both the industry and city residents disagreed on how to move forward. Santa Maria is not unique. In Florida, a zoning commission voted down a company’s plan to build a dormitory to house the workers because of public backlash.

The requirements to house, feed, and transport H-2A workers show that even if your request for workers is approved, it’s still an uphill battle. For industries that don’t have a seasonal element, it’s even more difficult. For example, dairies do not require seasonal work, and so it is generally more difficult for them to meet their labor needs through the H-2A program. That’s why farm and dairy associations, like the New York Farm Bureau, lobby for reforms that create a legal workforce without seasonal constraints.

Why not automate now?

Employers, even non-dairy farmers, think that the H-2A visa program is expensive and unwieldy to navigate correctly. The system is designed to be costly, at least in some ways, as a protection for US workers. That’s the explicit logic behind the adverse effect wage rate requirement, after all.

That expensive design, however, creates unintended consequences. Primarily, the costly set-up of the H-2A program expedites automation. By making the H-2A program more expensive than it would otherwise be, these requirements push the agriculture industry towards adopting labor-saving technologies faster since labor is more costly.

So why not automate right now? It turns out that many companies are. For example, the New York Times featured Taylor Farms and their methods for automating making the company’s salads. The Times reports that the Taylor Farms it is tough keeping up with the demands for its products, and people weren’t applying for their jobs. The chief operating officer of Taylor Farms points out the motivation for automation, “Our workforce is getting older. We aren’t attracting young people to our industry. We aren’t getting an influx of immigrants. How do we deal with that? Innovation.”

The Department of Agriculture is also incentivizing research into automation. For example, it provided $4.5 million in grants for research on robotics in 2013. On a related note, a Utah company debuted a driverless tractor in 2016. The company, Autonomous Solutions, is also looking into parking, shuttles, and lawn mowing as extensions of its technology.

Of course, some types of farming will take longer to automate than others. For example, developing technologies to pick fragile fruits like strawberries will be more difficult and expensive. Efforts exist to solve those problems even now. Fundamentally, the technological revolution powered by computing, and the ease of connectivity means automation is here to stay.

Embracing immigration and automation

It’s more likely that efforts to restrict the supply of immigrant workers to protect US workers will speed up the efforts to adopt robots than protect those workers. In response, the H-2A visa program should be reformed to make it simpler for companies to apply as well as adapted to make it better fit the needs of the agriculture industry. For example, by allowing non-seasonal applications to accommodate dairy farmers.

Fundamentally, if workers are more expensive than investing in automation, then companies will turn to automation instead. Workers, both those from the US and those in the H-2A program, are becoming more expensive because they have better options available. It is not that automation eats up opportunities for employment. Instead, automation mainly reflects the better choices that workers enjoy.

Workers with better options mean that farmers have to offer higher wages to entice them to stay in the fields. In a lot of cases, farmers will turn to automation. Instead of fearing immigrants or automation, we should be excited that there are more and better opportunities for US workers. As the founder of Autonomous Solutions pointed out about their labor-saving tractors, “Get those people out of mind-numbing jobs.”

CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.