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Agriculture and farming is a cherished part of American identity and remains an important part of the American economy. In 2020, the agriculture, fishing, and forestry industries contributed more than $175 billion to U.S. GDP and supported more than 2.3 million workers. The health of America’s farms and the agriculture industry, however, is tied directly to immigration. Farmers frequently worry about finding enough workers as few Americans seem willing to take on the most difficult and physical farm jobs—particularly those harvesting fresh fruits and vegetables. Yet the H-2A visa, the only agricultural visa currently available to American farms, is too expensive and cumbersome to work for many U.S. growers. We explore this issue—and the way it costs our economy—below.

Immigrants and American Farms

In 2019, more than half of all hired farmworkers in the United States were immigrants, or roughly 450,000 workers. In many states known for their fresh produce, immigrant farm laborers make up large shares of miscellaneous agriculture workers—the occupation that includes those hand picking crops in the field.

State Share Miscellaneous Agriculture Workers Foreign-Born, 2019
California 79.3%
Washington 77.7%
Oregon 73.5%
Florida 70.9%
Arizona 69.8%
North Carolina 64.3%
Share of Miscellaneous Agricultural Workers in Crop Production, Undocumented, 2019
Share Undocumented

Farm Labor Shortages

In recent years, the number of new immigrants arriving in the country to work in agriculture has fallen by 75 percent. Rising wages indicate this has led to a major labor shortage on U.S. farms—making it difficult for many growers to stay in business or expand their operations. The workers left are also aging rapidly, meaning shortages will likely worsen as they retire.

Key Stats
146,000: Decline in the number of field and crop workers in America, 2002-2014
12 percent: Amount wages of field and crop workers rose during this period
Decline in Key States
State Drop in Number of Field and Crop Workers, 2002-2014 Percent Size of Field and Crop Workforce Shrunk
California -87,219 -39.4%
Colorado, Nevada, and Utah -4,244 -36.7%
Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina -6,956 -26.9%
New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware -5,716 -19.5%
Florida -8,504 -18.5%
Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin -4,434 -14.9%
Arizona, New Mexico -1,853 -14.0%
North Carolina, Virginia -3,798 -13.4%
The Aging of Foreign-Born Farm Workers
Years 25 & Under 26 to 44 45 and Up
1998-2002 38.2% 47.6% 14.2%
2008-2012 20.7% 52.3% 27.1%

The Cost of Our Farm Labor Shortage

Because agriculture is intertwined with so many other industries in our economy—such as transportation, packing, and irrigation—a shortage of farm workers hurts the U.S. economy more broadly. We estimate U.S. growers would have produced $3.1 billion more in fresh fruits and vegetables per year by 2014 had farm labor not been an issue. The table in this section shows the costs to the U.S. economy for failing to meet this target.

Labor Shortage Costs to the U.S. Economy
$3.1 billion in additional fresh produce sales per year for growers.
$2.8 billion in additional spending each year on related services like transportation.
41,000 more American jobs in non-farm sectors.

Rising Imports

In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables Americans eat that is imported. Although many factors play into this phenomenon, we estimate labor shortages alone explain 27 percent of the market share decline experienced by U.S. growers from 1998-2000 to 2010-2012. Had growers maintained their hold on the domestic market, an estimated 89,300 additional U.S. jobs would have been created by 2012.

Share imported, 1998-2000 Share imported, 2010-2012
Fresh Fruits 14.5% 25.8%
Fresh Vegetables 17.1% 31.2%

Jobs Americans Won’t Do

U.S. fresh produce growers have long said that few, if any, American workers are willing to take on the most arduous farm jobs. We studied this issue in North Carolina, examining how many American workers actually applied for heavily advertised farming positions in 2011, a period when the country was still recovering from the recession. The table in this section shows the results.

Key Stats
6,500 open farm jobs in North Carolina at start of the season.
265 American workers applied.
7 workers lasted the harvest season.
0.01 percent of North Carolina farm jobs were filled by American workers.

The H-2A Visa

The H-2A visa program, the only visa currently available to bring in temporary agriculture workers, is too cumbersome and unworkable for many farms. Farmers desperate for workers frequently go through the application process only to receive their laborers late, resulting in crop loss.

1 “Why Domestic Agriculture Needs New, Workable Farm Labor Alternatives Now,” National Council of Agricultural Employers, 2011. Available online.
2Ibid. 3Ibid.

Key Stats
$2,500: Average amount paid by a farm for each H-2A worker they receive.
3: Number of government agencies involved in approving every H-2A visa application.
72 percent: Share of farms that went through the long H-2A application process only to receive workers late in 2010.1
22: Average number of days late H-2A workers arrive when they are delayed.2
$169.8 million: Estimated value of crops lost in 2010 due to H-2A workers arriving late.3

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