From NYTimes.com, “Hand vs. Machine” by Philip Martin, 9 Oct 2011.
What Happened to the American Work Ethic?
Millions of people are looking for jobs, but aren’t jumping to be seasonal farm laborers. Why is that?
Sweet corn can be picked by hand or machine, and many growers use machines to pick the third of U.S. sweet corn that is consumed fresh. Hand harvesting involves a crew of 20 stripping ears off the stalks and throwing them onto a moving conveyor belt on which another 20 workers ride to sort and pack the ears into 48-ear boxes. Employers control the speed of work by setting the pace of the “mule train.” Machines can also strip the ears, which are then taken to a shed for sorting and packing.
John Harold, the farmer in Olathe, Colo., elected to pick sweet corn by hand. His experience shows that it is hard to switch from a “captive” and “loyal” H-2A labor force to American workers who do not lose the right to be in the United States if they lose their jobs. H-2A workers are the “N.F.L.” of low-skilled workers, carefully selected abroad, housed at the U.S. work site, and eager to maximize their hours and earnings. American workers willing to fill seasonal farm jobs, on the other hand, tend to view them as a short-term fill-in job until they can find something better.
Agricultural history shows that the demand for labor is more flexible than supply. As labor costs rise, farmers are more likely to switch to labor-saving machines before they find “good” U.S. workers. Not all farmers and commodities will survive the changes motivated by rising labor costs. Most green onions consumed in the U.S. are imported from Mexico, which has lower wages. Sweet corn is likely to remain in the U.S. as labor costs rise, but more will be picked by machine rather than by hand.
Philip Martin, a labor economist at the University of California, Davis, is the author, most recently, of “Importing Poverty? Immigration and the Changing Face of Rural America.”