Immigration in Agriculture

Here are two articles that summarize many of the key points regarding immigration reform in Minnesota and the midwest.

Immigration is Vital to Food and Agriculture

While the recession has hurt the construction and hospitality industries, other industries that traditionally employ immigrant workers are still going strong. Even in recession, the agricultural, food processing and nursery-landscape industries are struggling to find willing labor. Though U.S. unemployment nears 10 percent, companies in these sectors still depend on immigrants to fill the void. In contrast to immigrant workers, who are more flexible and relocate more readily, newly-unemployed, skilled U.S. workers typically aren’t interested in these lower-paying, physically-demanding and seasonal jobs. Immigrants are more likely to accept short-term, seasonal jobs that last only three to six months and are often located in remote areas.

“Even at a time of rising unemployment, there is a need for rational immigration reform to ensure a willing and able workforce for the food and ag industries,” contends Daryn McBeth, president Minnesota Agri-Growth Council.

Agri-Growth is part of the Business and Advocacy Immigration Coalition, which supports secure borders, a path to residency for current immigrants, simple and accurate worker verification programs, and guest worker programs that work for more industries, including dairies and nurseries. The coalition includes: the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, Minnesota Nursery and Landscape Association, Hospitality Minnesota, Minnesota Milk Producers Association and others.

“The coalition is working with the University of Minnesota to bring together an economic impact report on the immigrant workforce in Minnesota,” says McBeth. “We are looking forward to results from that study later in August and plan to review the findings with the Minnesota Congressional delegation.”

Immigrants are Nearly Half of Workforce

Immigrant labor has become an increasingly important component of many agricultural jobs. Nearly one-half of U.S. meat processing industry employees are foreign- born and a similar proportion of crop production workers are estimated to be foreign born. Forty-one percent of U.S. dairy workers are foreigners, according to a 2008 national survey sponsored by the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) and conducted by Texas AgriLife Reseach, a component of the Texas A & M University System.

Immigrants Create Jobs for Others

Unskilled immigrants sustain industries and keep high-skilled U.S. workers employed. It’s been estimated that each farm job supports 3.5 non-farm jobs, which are generally better paying and more likely to be held by native-born U.S. workers.

The NMPF’s comprehensive survey of the employment practices of America’s dairy farmers found that they rely heavily on foreign-born workers, the loss of which would cripple many farms and create a ripple effect of job losses through the rural economy. Texas AgriLife Research estimated that if federal and labor immigration policies were to result in the loss of just half of the 57,000 foreign-born dairy workers, an additional 66,000 workers would be lost due to the closure of some dairy farms, the resulting multiplier effect of fewer jobs in grain and fertilizer production, veterinary services, milk hauling, and other related service jobs. In total this would produce an economic loss of $11 billion (see tables 9 and 11 on page 3).

The same is true for other industries. “In our experience, immigrant workers aren’t taking jobs away from American workers instead they are supporting the year-round work of several hundred U.S. citizens in our company,” says Joe Bailey owner of Bailey Nursery, Newport, Minn. “It’s easy to think we don’t need immigration reform, but in reality there are not enough U.S. workers to do this work.  With the recession we did hire more people from the local community than ever before, but if we relied only on our local work force we’d be short-staffed by 75 percent.”

This past spring Bailey needed to hire 300-350 seasonal workers in Minnesota. As part of the H-2A seasonal agricultural worker program, he had to perform a very robust recruitment of the local labor pool. “We worked with the local job service and unemployment office and we actively advertised and recruited in the area. The jobs were advertised as paying between $8.25 and $10.25 per hour for three to eight months of work,” says Bailey.  “We only got one-fourth of the workers we needed from the recruitment process. Then we were allowed to bring in foreign workers through the H-2A program.”

Immigration Reform Needed

Bailey Nursery is a wholesale grower and distributor of ornamental plants that operates in five states and employs 600 fulltime workers and 600 seasonal workers.  About 15 percent of the fulltime employees and 85 percent of the seasonal employees are immigrants. A lot of seasonal workers have worked at Bailey Nursery for a decade or more. “If we didn’t have those immigrant workers we’d be out of business,” Bailey says. “We need immigration reform. We need the AgJobs bill to pass and we need the H-2A program to be less bureaucratic and cumbersome.”

Jim Wilson of Wilson’s Nursery with locations in New Germany and Chanhassen, Minn., agrees, “It’s easier to fill positions now, but the recession will come and go and we’ll have a hard time getting workers again. We need to fix the guest worker programs and make them useable for more businesses. The first time I went to Washington D.C. to talk with our legislators was 11 years ago and still little has been done. I can’t use the current guest worker programs. They are too hard and too costly.” Wilson employs five full-time workers and 25 seasonal workers.

Immigrants are an important part of the work force on Pat Lunemann’s 500-head dairy near Clarissa, Minn. In June, he was among three members of Minnesota’s Business and Advocacy Immigration Coalition to go to Washington D.C. to meet with Immigration Works USA and members of Congress and their staffs to press for immigration reform.  Also attending were: Stacia Smith, lobbyist with the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and Bob Fitch, executive director of the Minnesota Nursery and Landscape Association.

“The dairy industry relies heavily on immigrant labor. In most cases, local people are not interested or willing do to the serious physical labor required on a dairy farm. Our immigrant workers are hard working and reliable. We need comprehensive reform that offers a legal way for immigrants to work here,” Lunemann says. “Current temporary worker visa programs don’t work for the dairy industry because our work is year-round and not seasonal.”

Despite a wage plus benefit equivalent that approaches $25 per hour, leading Minnesota animal processing plants also find few willing native-born workers to fill jobs.

Long Term Needs

The demographic reality that makes immigrants essential to our economy is constant, even during an economic downturn. By 2012, more than 75 million baby boomers will retire. The U.S. fertility rate will drop below replacement levels by 2015 or 2020. In addition, fewer than 10 percent of American men drop out of high school to look for unskilled work today – compared to 50 percent in 1960.

In Minnesota, many high schools are seeing their highest graduating classes for the next 20-50 years. In 2008, Minnesota had a 30 percent jump in workers turning 62 and by 2012 there is projected to be an additional 15 percent increase. By, 2020 the growth in the Minnesota workforce is estimated to slow down by over 90 percent from the growth levels during 2005-2010.

Keeping Jobs During Recovery

Neglecting immigration reform or shrinking temporary worker programs now, will lead to labor shortages when the economy starts to improve. If businesses can’t find the labor they need, they will move off-shore. U.S. employers can raise wages only so much – any higher and they will find they are no longer globally competitive.  And if they can’t succeed in the U.S., many will move to other countries, contends Immigration Works USA. The American Farm Bureau Federation estimates that without migrant labor, up to 20 percent of U.S. fresh fruit, vegetable, and nursery production would shift to other countries.  Since 2000, U.S. direct investment in Mexican agriculture has increased sevenfold. American companies now farm more than 45,000 acres in Mexico, employing 11,000 workers.

Part II of Immigration Issues, Written 2008

Migration Shores up Ag Sector

CLICK TO ENLARGE: The number of Ag workers declining.


Many Minnesota businesses rely on immigrant workers to fill a growing worker shortage. The growth rate of Minnesota’s workforce is declining while our economy continues to grow. Thus, Minnesota is experiencing a shortfall of workers (both skilled and low-skilled).

“There is a huge increase in the number of people reaching retirement age while there is a sharp decline in the number of young people available to fill those positions,” says Tom Gillaspy, state demographer, Minnesota Department of Administration. Beginning in 2008, Minnesota experienced a 30 percent jump in workers turning age 62. From 2005 to 2010 there will be a 1.2 percent decline in the population of 18 to 24-year-olds in Minnesota, with further declines projected over the next decade. This means competition for the future workforce will increase.

By 2020 the number of people 65 years and older will exceed the 5 to 17-year-old population in the state. The 65-plus population is already greater than the 18 to 24-year-old population. “This is unprecedented. We’ve never seen anything like this before,” says Gillaspy. “In addition, Minnesota has the highest participation rate in the workforce of any state. This means that migration will be an increasingly important component of the Minnesota labor force. The migration can come from other states or countries, but since the same trends are occurring across the U.S., Europe and Canada most of the migration will likely come from Latin America, Africa and Asia.”


He continues, “If we don’t add enough people to the labor force we will need to add more per worker productivity to grow the economy at the same rate. That’s going to get harder to do as the necessary per worker productivity increases get larger. Typically, two-thirds of economic growth comes from adding more people to the workforce and the other third comes from increases in productivity.”

Agri-Growth, as part of the Business and Advocacy Immigration Coalition, hosted four meetings in June on Immigration and the Economy. The meetings were held in St. Cloud, Worthington, Minneapolis and Rochester. The coalition includes the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council, Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, Minnesota Nursery & Landscape Association, Hospitality Minnesota, Minnesota Milk Producers Association, Midwest Food Processors Association, Minnesota Restaurant Association, Minnesota Lodging Association and others. In total more than 100 stakeholders attended the meetings. Several members of anti-immigration reform groups showed up at the meetings serving as a strong reminder of the need for businesses to speak out constructively on the need for federal immigration reform.

“It’s very important that businesses speak out on immigration reform because anti-immigration groups are very vocal, active and they promote fear-mongering,” saysStacia Smith, lobbyist with the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. “Our elected officials are hearing 100 to 1 from anti-immigration groups compared to businesses. Business leaders need to talk to their neighbors and their elected officials about the importance of immigrant labor in their businesses.”

The Business and Advocacy Immigration Coalition plans to meet one on one with all members of the Congressional delegation to express the business view on comprehensive immigration reform. The Coalition also plans a letter-writing campaign to members of Congress, a symposium, more local meetings and public relations efforts with media.

Agri-Growth is stepping up to change the tone of the immigration debate. “This issue is filled with hyperbole and emotion. We want to cut through that by speaking with facts that demonstrate the need for immigration reform and the current deficiencies of federal policies,” says Daryn McBeth, Agri-Growth president. (See box on page 3 for the Coalition’s reform principles.)

Many Minnesota industries such as food, agriculture, landscaping and hospitality depend on immigrants to fill a growing worker shortage. In 2006, Minnesota’s foreign-born workforce was about 8 percent of the total workforce.

“Immigration reform is vital for our industry,” says Bob Fitch, executive director, Minnesota Nursery and Landscape Association. “It’s increasingly difficult to find native-born workers who want to do hard physical field work. Guest and immigrant workers have done an awesome job for our industry.”

He describes how one Minnesota nursery grower needed 400 seasonal workers in the spring. The grower placed ads in all the local newspapers and got less than a half dozen applicants. “Our association has been working for immigration reform for a dozen years. The system is broken. It is difficult, bureaucratic and it doesn’t allow for enough immigrants of all sorts,” says Fitch.

He notes the H-2A program for seasonal agricultural workers is bureaucratic and extremely expensive. Small growers don’t have the human resource capability to deal with that program, he says. The H-2B temporary non-agricultural visa program works and functions well for the service industry but allows a ridiculously small number of visas. “There is a limit of 66,000 visas for the entire country. Those are typically gone in one day,” he says. The situation is similar for H-1B highly-skilled worker visas.

Mitch Davis with Davisco Foods and Davis Family Dairies contends if our country lived a month without immigrant labor, everyone would be begging them to come back.  “We need immigration reform. If we don’t do something, the participants in our workforce are at risk, which compromises the security of our food production, as well as the cost, structure and efficiency of the food chain,” says Davis. “In milk and many other food products, immigrant labor is a key part of production and processing. We need to give the undocumented immigrant workers who are already here a way to become legal workers. They are hard-working and reliable and they are doing jobs that were going un-filled by American workers.”

Bob Lefebvre, executive director Minnesota Milk Producers Association, agrees, “Dairy producers need quality people to care for and milk cows. Unfortunately there is a shortage of quality people locally to perform those jobs. Right now there is no guest worker program that’s suitable for the dairy industry. We need a long-term guest worker program.”

Lefebvre, Davis and Fitch note that the jobs immigrants are filling in their industries typically pay 30 to 40 percent above the minimum hourly wage. Entry level milkers at Davis Family Dairies can earn more than $30,000 per year and have access to 401(k) accounts and health insurance. Fitch says most seasonal nursery and landscaping jobs pay $8 to $18 per hour.

As Minnesota’s immigrant population is growing so is its buying power. In 2007, Latino’s and Asian’s purchasing power accounted for six percent of Minnesota’s retail sales. The number of immigrant-owned businesses is growing, too. Latino-owned and Asian-owned businesses in the state account for eight percent of all Minnesota businesses.