Why Americans won’t do farm labor

America’s ongoing arguments about illegal immigration and food are tied together by the role of migrant farm laborers. People bemoan the flood of migrant farm laborers providing cheap labor to agriculture, but aren’t willing to acknowledge the economic pressures their own shopping habits place on agribusiness to keep prices down at all costs. The next time someone complains about illegal labor, ask what’s in their fridge, where it came from, and who picked it; and whether they’d be willing to pay twice as much for their food if it meant an all-American farm labor force. That’s how a free market really works, inconvenient though it may be. Food is one of the most government-controlled aspects of our economy, though you’d never think so to hear from people worked up about Obamacare.

One of more interesting twists lately comes from the United Farm Workers, who have initiated a program called “Take Our Jobs“, inviting Americans to spend time as a farm laborer to see what the work really entails. It is a reaction to the common trope that migrant labors “steal jobs Americans would otherwise do”, the counterpoint to which is that Americans “won’t do such jobs, so migrants have to”. I’ve heard many claims that Americans are just too lazy or spoiled to do this kind of hot, dangerous, more-skilled-than-you-think work.

I think there is some truth to both sides of this, but in thinking about the issue, something very significant occurred to me. I don’t think it’s true that Americans won’t do farm labor; I think they won’t do farm labor at the pay offered. There are lots of Americans who do difficult, long, dangerous, hot, skilled, work. Construction workers in the South come to mind, as do soldiers. Difference? They’re paid well, generally with good benefits, to do that work. (Growing up, I spent a portion of one summer tarring roofs in Alabama; I’ll take farm labor any day.)

An even better analogy, in my mind, is Appalachian coal miners. This is easily an equally dangerous, hot, long, skilled job as farm labor, but it’s done almost exclusively by (white) Americans, most of them with long pedigrees in this country. Difference? Coal miners get reasonably good salaries and can expect a comfortable middle-class life in return for their work; it’s considered an honorable job and is often passed down through families. But we pay a lot more for our electricity because of that.

Considering the current economics of energy production, imagine the uproar if major coal companies started hiring low-wage migrants to displace well-paid American miners in order to keep costs down. Apparently we’re all willing to pay effectively higher energy prices to preserve the middle-class incomes of coal miners; why aren’t we willing to do the same on farms?

If farm labor were paid a salary and benefits commensurate with its equals in danger, skill, and labor (like mining or construction), and if it were accorded the respect given to those jobs, I think we would see Americans able and willing to do the work. But we’ve collectively decided that cheap food is more important than anything, while sticking our heads in the sand about the rational economic results of such a choice.

So I don’t think Americans (if there is such a consistent collective) are too lazy to do the work; I think they’re too smart. They know perfectly well that doing hard, dangerous work for low pay and no benefits is lunacy, especially when the other options are easier work for low pay or government benefits for no work. The only people willing to put up with hard farm work for low pay are (a) immigrants for whom the conditions and pay are still better than back home, and (b) self-employed farmers like us who hope to improve our lot and who get the side benefits of independence and entrepreneurship. And we’re not at all sure it will prove to be worth our while in the long term compared to other choices we could make.

So the next time someone complains about immigration, ask if they’d be willing to pay the food prices necessary to make it economically rational for Americans to work in the field, and ask why they aren’t offended by higher energy prices caused by well-paid American union mine labor. Both answers had better be consistent, which is unlikely.

7 thoughts on “Why Americans won’t do farm labor

  1. Clear, concise, logical, and true, the perfect blog. This should be required reading for all those who complain about high prices at the Farmer's Markets.

  2. I really appreciate your take on this complicated issue. I always love reading your blog, but I especially appreciate the way you solidify your thoughts this way… I may not always agree (though today I totally do!), but I really appreciate your thoughtful efforts.

  3. I hope that every American, regardless of where he lives, will stop and examine his conscience about this and other related incidents. This Nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened. All of us ought to have the right to be treated as he would wish to be treated, as one would wish his children to be treated, but this is not the case.I know the proponents of this law say that the majority approves of this law, but the majority is not always right. Would women or non-whites have the vote if we listen to the majority of the day, would the non-whites have equal rights (and equal access to churches, housing, restaurants, hotels, retail stores, schools, colleges and yes water fountains) if we listen to the majority of the day? We all know the answer, a resounding, NO!As for the undocumented workers, as was attributed to Ronald Reagan “It’s the Economy, Stupid”. When the economy is good you say let’s all celebrate “Cinco de Mayo, my brothers” but when the economy is down “it’s all your fault, you damn immigrant”. This too will pass, the real problem is the narcos, arms and people smugglers and that’s what the focus should be on. Today we are committed to a worldwide struggle to promote and protect the rights of all who wish to be free. In a time of domestic crisis men of good will and generosity should be able to unite regardless of party or politics and do what is right, not what is just popular with the majority. Some men comprehend discrimination by never have experiencing it in their lives, but the majority will only understand after it happens to them.

  4. Thanks, all. This has already generated the most hits in this blog's 3-year history (not that that's saying much), and I don't think any other blog has linked to it yet (my Google Alert would tell me). I'm considering writing it up as a letter/column to the Tribune. Appreciate the feedback, and would love to hear from anyone who disagreed as well. Forward it to someone you think would!Benito,I think you're taking this a bit wider than I intended. I'm not touching the AZ law here, just the consequences for food/ag. I'm of very mixed feelings on the wider issue. America has always struggled with its open-door policy and the periodic streams of "other" that result; we've seen similar dynamics with Poles, Scandinavians, Italians, Chinese, almost everyone at some point or another. The problem now, is that for the first time American doesn't have any more space and any more opportunities for expansion to absorb the latest flood, or allow those whom it displaces to move on to something new. Americans have always been able to move and try something new when necessary, but the realities of our modern world are making that less and less possible, such that an arrival of competing workers in a set locale is a deeper problem than it used to be.