From Migration.UCDavis.edu, University of California-Davis, Philip Martin, 30 Apr 2011.
There have been three major changes in California agriculture and farm labor over the past half century. First is the expansion of especially FVH commodity production.California’s share of US farm sales increased alongside the rising share of high-value FVH commodities in the state’s agricultural sales; today two thirds of California’s farm sales are from FVH crops. The expansion of irrigated agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley in the 1950s and 1960s and the shift of citrus and dairy into the SJV meant that the SJV replaced southern California as the center of the state’s farm production. Los Angeles county was the number one US farm county in 1950; Fresno county has been number one for the past half century.
Second, despite worries of labor shortages, sufficient farm labor was available to support California’s expanding FVH agriculture. There were major labor worries in the early 1960s when the Bracero program ended, which prompted rising farm wages and a wave of mechanization symbolized by precision planters and herbicides, bulk bins in the fields, and the mechanical tomato harvester. By 1979, when the federal minimum wage was $2.90 an hour, the general labor wage in UFW contracts was $3.75 an hour, and the UFW demanded a wage increase to $5.25 an hour at a time when piece rate earnings in California averaged $5.15 (NASS). Rising unauthorized migration since the 1980s and the changing structure of agriculture (easy-to-boycott brand names avoided hiring farm workers) allowed real farm wages to fall toward the California minimum wage of $8 an hour in 2011. Average hourly earnings are 20 to 25 percent more than the minimum wage.
Third, the farm labor market has a revolving door character that slowed during the 2008-09 recession because of shrinking construction employment. Seasonal farm work attracts workers with few other US job options. During the high-wage era of the 1960s and 1970s, the average tenure of workers employed in FVH agriculture lengthened as seasonality declined, benefits improved, and some large farms issued employee handbooks and established job ladders. Today, average tenure appears to be less than 10 years despite reduced seasonality and a higher share of workers employed in the almost year-round greenhouse and nursery and dairy sectors. If current trends continue, the seasonal farm workers of tomorrow will continue to grow up outside the US, and the children of farm workers educated in the US will shun their parents’ jobs.
How would immigration reform affect FVH expansion, earnings just above the minimum wage, and the revolving-door farm labor market? First, the share of foreign-born workers would likely increase from the current 75 percent as unauthorized workers who become legal immigrants drift out of farm work and are replaced by H-2A or unauthorized workers. Second, especially H-2A guest workers may be less “visible” if they are housed on the farms where they work or in nearby towns because most will be in the US without their families. Third, farm worker tenure may increase if H-2A workers who cannot earn immigrant status return year-after-year to fill US farm jobs. It appears that, if AgJOBS is enacted farm employers are more likely to invest in housing and the recruitment of H-2A workers rather than raising wages and benefits to retain newly legalized farm workers. Even without AgJOBS, the H-2A program expanded to about 100,000 farm jobs a year, equivalent to 10 percent of long-season jobs on US farms.