U.S. Wheat Farmers Face Grim Harvests As Immigration Bill Dies

Alan Bjerga, Bloomberg, July 3, 2007

The immigration bill that was killed by the U.S. Senate focused on the nation’s 12 million illegal aliens. To many farmers, the issue is more about such people as Thomas Murphy, an Irishman who leads a crew of combine operators from the U.K., cutting wheat across a swath of the Great Plains.

Murphy’s crew and 2,500 other skilled, legal immigrants who come from places such as South Africa, Australia and New Zealand to cut grain are among the most productive workers in the U.S., gathering one-third of all the wheat in a $7.7 billion market.

That’s why farmers and the companies that hire the crews say Congress’s failure last week to overhaul the immigration laws will heighten an already intense labor shortage by preventing them from importing more of the English-speaking workers, even as the need for them grows. That may lower crop yields, raise food prices and force some growers out of business, they say.

“You’ll have labor that simply doesn’t get done,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said in a June 28 interview after the Senate rejected the legislation. “We have a system that doesn’t work very well, so they’re really struggling.”

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Half the Workers

Great Plains wheat-cutting teams, once filled by Texas and Dakota farm kids, now rely on foreigners for as many as half the workers who cut grain sold to Archer Daniels Midland Co., Cargill Inc. and other companies, according to U.S. Custom Harvesters Inc., a trade group. That echoes trends across U.S. agriculture.

Grain-cutters say they need more of the skilled workers: Their understaffed crews are falling behind in the harvest, leaving crops vulnerable to disease and weather. The wheat harvest was 40 percent complete as of July 1, compared with 62 percent at the same time in 2006, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says. That’s mostly because of poor weather.

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From Texas to Dakota

The English-speaking, itinerant grain workers travel in crews, starting in Texas in May and finishing in North Dakota in November, harvesting corn and other crops as well as wheat.

While their numbers pale in comparison to the more than 3 million, mostly Hispanic undocumented immigrants in meatpacking, produce and food service, an individual harvester’s economic impact is far greater because of the mechanization of the grain harvest. U.S. wheat was worth more than the labor-intensive output of grapes, tomatoes and apples combined in 2006, according to the USDA.

Most of the harvest workers come to the U.S. on H2A visas for temporary agricultural labor. H2As require employers to buy newspaper and radio advertisements to prove that efforts to hire domestic workers were unsuccessful. That slows hiring and increases costs. Once a foreign worker arrives, the employer must pay the government-set prevailing wage and provide free housing.

Easier Visas

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South Africans are the largest contingent among the English-speaking immigrant harvesters, sending 1,054 workers to the U.S. on H2A visas last year, up from none 10 years ago, State Department figures show.

U.S. grain-cutters came to rely on international harvesters as the domestic worker supply fell, said Tim Baker, operations manager for U.S. Custom Harvesters, the Hutchinson, Kansas-based trade association. Age restrictions for commercial drivers’ licenses eliminated most high schoolers. The harvest season’s length deters college students.

Tight Markets

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Work starts once the morning dew has dried and continues for 16 hours until night moisture makes the wheat too wet. A harvester must be able to work continually while making quick repairs to keep a $300,000 combine in motion.

For that, a worker bunks with crewmates in a mobile trailer for free while seeing the U.S. heartland on net pay of about $1,800 per month. The high-quality, low-cost labor “keeps costs down and keeps the producer profitable, which keeps the U.S. competitive in the world market,” said Kenneth Hobbie, who heads the U.S. Grains Council, a Washington-based group that represents Archer Daniels, Cargill and other companies.

Lower Wages

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Thomas Murphy grew up farming potatoes 25 miles north of Dublin. He came to America two years ago on a student visa to learn about U.S. agriculture. When the harvest is done, he returns to Ireland and tends bar.

This year, his application for an H2A visa was denied. U.S. officials thought Murphy, who’s 23 and single, might not have enough Irish ties to want to return.

Back and Forth

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Frederick was frantic when his foreman was rejected on the eve of the harvest. His combines were in Texas, and wheat doesn’t wait.

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In an illustration of how thorny the issue is, Moran chose not to co-sponsor AgJobs. Borders, he said, must be secure first before other immigration woes can be tackled.

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