By Gene Hall
I am a big fan of Dr. Thomas Sowell, a free market economist, except when he starts talking about agricultural labor and immigration reform.
Dr. Sowell’s support of the free market is something I appreciate most of the time. His latest article, however, challenging a “need” for workers in agriculture, has missed the target. He wrote that we don’t need immigration reform and a guest worker program for agriculture. In his opinion, paying more for labor will get you plenty of American workers.
Dr. Sowell missed the point and for the same reasons everyone else does. Farmers cannot raise their prices to cover increased costs. Unlike the guy with the price label gun moving down the aisles at the grocery store, farmers must take the prevailing price, or not sell at all. It’s a system with many sellers (farmers) and not that many buyers. If Farmer Jones is not willing to sell at the prevailing market price, then the buyer moves down the road to Farmer Smith or Farmer Brown, both of whom will sell. Of course, Farmer Jones knows this. He too will sell, or incur the costs of storing the grain until he gets his price. With operating loans and other bills to pay, many farmers must sell. Farmers have mechanized due to labor challenges, but not every crop lends itself to that.
Agricultural prices respond to supply and demand like everything else, but profit margins are almost always razor thin. Often, it’s difficult to raise wages high enough to lure Americans out of the air conditioning and into the fields. Law abiding farmers and ranchers find themselves in a jam. They can follow the strict letter of the law and fail to produce food the world needs or hire workers they can’t document and respond to their high calling of feeding their fellow man. We’ve got to stop this lose/lose scenario.
Both sides of our current political dysfunction have a tendency to reduce our problems to a “one size fits all” solution. Immigration reform and agricultural labor defy most attempts to shoehorn the issues into such a solution.