Agricultural labor has no ‘one size fits all’ solution

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.

Gene Hall

Public Relations Director
Texas Farm Bureau
I believe that the only hope for a food secure world is capitalism and reasonable profits for America’s farm and ranch families–that the first element of sustainability is economic survival.
Follow Gene on Twitter and Facebook.

2 Responses to “Agricultural labor has no ‘one size fits all’ solution”

  1. Green Fields Project says:

    Dr. Sowell is one of my favorite economist as well. The man is brilliant! Unfornuately, like many people, when it comes to agriculture most try to fit the model of an hourly wage earning factory worker into agriculture. Nice try but that model just doesn’t fit.
    The problem with finding and keeping farm labor is hardly a new thing. The interest in working on a a farm started fading away nearly 5000 years ago and hasn’t gotten any better. The main reason ( I think) farm labor is so hard to come by has little to do with wages ppaid, but rather the alternative to being in the labor force at all. If there is such an overwhelming need for farm labor, why is there no incentive to do so for those seeking employment? There is however an tremendious incentive to sign up for and recieve government assistance. Has Welfare become more popular then eating?

    People also complain about government subsidies that farmers get without the knowledge that the government, in some instances, sets the price. Dairy is certainly part of a free market,, but, since the government sets the price structure it also sets the floor. And then makes up the difference. MILC.

  2. A new crop of immigrants who will learn the ropes of the entitlement system and essentially retire from active farm and ranch work within five to ten years, will NOT solve our recurrent labor shortage.

    Our small rural towns are bulging with such people now. They won’t work “on the books” for $20 an hour, because they would lose their gov disability, or other entitlement benefits, but they will break their back for CASH, off the record. Evidently this is the best kept secret in rural America.

    Another 30 M of them will only overburden our county infrastructure and community services, overrunning us with uneducated, third world neighbors who have no grasp of the concept of civil society.

    We need ENTITLEMENT REFORM, NOT immigration reform.

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