International Harvest: A Case Study of How Foreign Workers Help American Farms Grow Crops – and the Economy

“International Harvest: A Case Study of How Foreign Workers Help American Farms Grow Crops – and the Economy,” a report by the Partnership for a New American Economy and the Center for Global Development authored by Michael Clemens, analyzes data from local farms in North Carolina and finds that immigrant agriculture workers not only fill farm jobs that U.S. workers will not – they also benefit the state’s economy and create American jobs by doing so. Looking at 15 years of data from the North Carolina Growers Association, the report finds the following:

    • There is virtually no supply of native manual farm laborers in North Carolina: In 2011, with 6,500 available farm jobs in the state, only 268 of the nearly 500,000 unemployed North Carolinians applied for these jobs. More than 90 percent (245 people) of those applying were hired, but just 163 showed up for the first day of work. Only seven native workers completed the entire growing season, filling only one-tenth of 1 percent of the open farm jobs.
    • No matter how bad the economy becomes, native workers still do not take farm jobs: In the late 2000s, North Carolina experienced an economic shock that dramatically increased the state’s unemployment rate, from 4.7 percent in 2007 to 10.9 percent in 2010. Yet there was almost no correlation between rising unemployment and either more native workers being referred to NCGA jobs or more workers starting at NCGA jobs, and there was no correlation between higher unemployment and more workers completing the growing season.
    • Foreign farm workers create jobs for American workers: In 2012, the foreign-born seasonal agriculture workers who filled North Carolina farm jobs added an estimated $248 million to $371 million to the state economy that year. This economic benefit created one U.S. worker job for each 3.0 to 4.6 immigrant farm workers who worked in North Carolina.
    • The North Carolina Growers Association (NCGA) – the organization that comprises many of the state’s leading farms – spends more money to comply with the immigration laws designed to protect American workers than it does on salaries for all of its American farm workers combined: The NCGA spent more than $100,000 to advertise farm jobs and comply with immigration laws in 2011, while NCGA farms paid out just $87,000 in wages to the seven native workers who completed the season working on the farm, showing that the program protecting native employment is inefficient.

Based on these findings, the report concludes with the following recommendations for any future guest worker visa for agriculture:

    • The number of agricultural guest worker visas should remain uncapped or be structured in a way that meets farmers’ labor needs. In North Carolina, native workers filled just one-tenth of one percent of farms’ labor needs. Any temporary visa program should provide sufficient workers to meet the remaining 99.9 percent of job openings.
    • The number of agricultural worker visas should not depend on local or national unemployment rates. Even when unemployment more than doubled in North Carolina, there was just a slight increase in native workers referred to NCGA jobs and starting, and no change in the number of workers who completed the season.
    • Requirements to protect American workers should be modernized and streamlined. The recruiting requirements for US farm workers should be preserved, but should be streamlined so that the cost of recruiting – and accompanying documentation – does not exceed the values of the jobs.
    • The guest worker program should have the flexibility needed by agriculture’s employers and employees. Because the needs of planting and harvest depend on climate and weather, farmers should be certified as having jobs that cannot be filled by native workers, then allowed to hire the guest workers as need arises throughout the season, and guest workers should be free to work for any certified farmer who has job openings.

Download the Report (PDF).

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