Structural Unemployment: Americans Lack Farm Labor Skills


Most Americans simply don't apply for jobs harvesting fruits and vegetables in California, where one of every eight people is out of work, according to government data for a federal seasonal farmworker program analyzed by The Associated Press.

And the few unemployed Americans who apply through official channels usually don't stay on in the fields, a point comedian Stephen Colbert dressed as a field hand has alluded to in recent broadcasts on Comedy Central.

Anyone familiar with farm work can tell you - it is impossibly taxing physically. No one would wish it on their kids.

Speaking for me only

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    Hey Johnny (5.00 / 1) (#3)
    by MO Blue on Mon Sep 27, 2010 at 06:08:41 PM EST
    If you work hard and get good grades in school, you too can become a field hand. Love Mom

    Somehow, I don't think that is what most people think the American dream is all about. Of course, when the average worker makes the same wages as those in China and India, unemployment won't be such a problem.

    The problem is crops must be picked (none / 0) (#13)
    by Socraticsilence on Mon Sep 27, 2010 at 08:17:12 PM EST
    so the dilemma remains (and this is what Colbert was laying out) either we allow migrant labor, or we accept far higher food prices.

    Also when hybrids are developed (none / 0) (#21)
    by gyrfalcon on Tue Sep 28, 2010 at 12:17:03 AM EST
    to survive mechanical harvesting without major damage, both taste and nutrition go down the drain.  Ever look at those giant potatoes in the supermarket?  Every one of them has multiple gashes and wounds from harvesting machines, yet they heal over without causing rot to start. And they have almost no flavor compared to the potatoes of years gone by, or what you can grow in your own garden.

    (Sorry, major pet peeve!)


    Hey (none / 0) (#1)
    by Ga6thDem on Mon Sep 27, 2010 at 06:01:53 PM EST
    you're speaking for me too. I thought this was the type of world we left behind after WWII. Perhaps we are returning to that kind of world and we are going to go backwards instead of forwards?

    While I never (none / 0) (#2)
    by Zorba on Mon Sep 27, 2010 at 06:07:40 PM EST
    picked vegetables or fruits in the field, we used to raise beef cattle (and the hay to feed them, which we also grew and harvested).  This was physically demanding, but nothing like picking crops in the field, because a lot of what we did could be done with tractors, hay balers, and other farm equipment.  Yes, Americans would do these jobs, but only if they paid a really good, living wage.  These jobs will never pay that kind of a wage because Americans are not willing to pay $8 a head for lettuce, and proportionally more for fruits, vegetables, and meat (yes, meat- who do you think is working in our chicken, especially, and other processing plants?).  It's not about a "farm labor skill," it's what we're willing to pay for food.  

    I'm guessing there's some myth there (5.00 / 1) (#6)
    by nycstray on Mon Sep 27, 2010 at 06:38:33 PM EST
    in how high food prices would go with living wages. Big AG comes to mind as a possible source. . . .

    Not too sure about that (none / 0) (#7)
    by Zorba on Mon Sep 27, 2010 at 07:26:01 PM EST
    Big Agra employs a whole lot of illegals, themselves.

    And by that I mean that (none / 0) (#8)
    by Zorba on Mon Sep 27, 2010 at 07:31:53 PM EST
    I really think that food prices will definitely go up, because Big Agra will pass along any increased labor costs to the consumers.  They're not going to stand for decreased profits.  My suggestion is, if you can, grow as many of your own fruits and vegetables as you can, or buy from local farm stands, and can and freeze and root cellar as much as you can.  That's what we do.

    So the brain trust (none / 0) (#10)
    by Rojas on Mon Sep 27, 2010 at 07:54:30 PM EST
    that is "Big Agra" is charging less than the market will bear?

    They're charging as much (none / 0) (#11)
    by Zorba on Mon Sep 27, 2010 at 07:59:21 PM EST
    as they can now, because their labor costs are relatively low.  Farm workers don't make very much.  If farm workers made more, Agra's costs would go up, and they would charge more for their products.

    I don't understand.. (none / 0) (#12)
    by Rojas on Mon Sep 27, 2010 at 08:09:42 PM EST
    You said
    "They're not going to stand for decreased profits"
    so if their cost go up their profits go up right?

    already there and have been for (none / 0) (#19)
    by nycstray on Mon Sep 27, 2010 at 09:09:18 PM EST

    Maybe a bit (none / 0) (#14)
    by Socraticsilence on Mon Sep 27, 2010 at 08:18:25 PM EST
    but I don't think its exaggerated greatly- its simple math commodities prices would have to increase if labor cost went up 50-100%.

    So commodities such as food (5.00 / 1) (#26)
    by Rojas on Tue Sep 28, 2010 at 06:49:45 AM EST
    Don't trade based on supply and demand....
    Somehow, in the middle of our capitalist mecca, these goods are brought to market on a cost plus basis....
    Interesting theory but I doubt if it holds....
    I sure know a lot of folks who would sign up for that.

    What does the actual data tell us?
    Historical monthly price spread data for beef, pork, broilers, turkeys, and eggs

    This is the farmer's share of the retail price. This is based on the net farm value which varied between 90 and 95 percent of the gross for the average of each decade.

    70-79 $.54
    80-89 $.49
    90-99 $.37
    2000-09 $.29

    I'm just a dumb country boy, but it seems to me that farm costs or the actual price paid to the farmer have very little relationship to the retail price. The farmer's share is damn near half of what it used to be. Where did it all go?


    Data is in Percentage not dollars (none / 0) (#27)
    by Rojas on Tue Sep 28, 2010 at 08:25:29 AM EST
    It all went... (none / 0) (#28)
    by kdog on Tue Sep 28, 2010 at 09:21:52 AM EST
    to shareholders and fuel for the Agri-Corp CEO's private jet...like most every industry, the way the pie gets sliced is whacked out.

    There is no way to know what a head of lettuce should cost in a rigged market such as ours...too many strings.


    There is a reason for that (none / 0) (#31)
    by Rojas on Tue Sep 28, 2010 at 11:00:11 AM EST
    And very few proud Dems will admit it.

    IF you'd have listened to the hearing (5.00 / 1) (#15)
    by scribe on Mon Sep 27, 2010 at 08:39:24 PM EST
    with Colbert last week, you'd have heard part of the testimony (not from Colbert, but from one of the other witnesses) was that that portion of food cost which is attributable to labor is something like 6 percent.

    So, it costs about 6 cents for the labor involved in bringing that 99 cent head of lettuce to your supermarket.

    If one were to double the wages involved, that 99 cent head of lettuce would go up to $1.05.  

    So, no, the price of food would not double.  

    I suspect that the largest - definitely larger than labor - portion of the price of vegetables/fruit is in petroleum products to ship it from California, Texas or Florida to wherever you might be.  Another big portion of the price is in spoilage.  And another huge portion of the price is in markup (profit) for each of the middlemen between farmer and table.    


    Not transportation cost (none / 0) (#20)
    by gyrfalcon on Tue Sep 28, 2010 at 12:13:05 AM EST
    according to an article I read recently.  Can't find the link now, but transportation costs are not as large a percentage as one would imagine, apparently.  Don't know what the cost is of sending a refrigerated tractor-trailer from CA to the East Coast, but whatever it is, divide it by what, a thousand or more, for the added cost to a head of lettuce.

    Lettuce lasts an amazingly long time after picking, something I didn't know until the first time I bought one freshly picked at a farmer's market and it was fine in my fridge for a month!

    Spoilage certainly comes into it, but since big commercial fruit and vegetable crops have been developed to retard spoilage, and chemical sprays also retard spoilage, and most crops that are vulnerable to spoilage are shipped unripe, it may not be as much as we think.

    There are several generations of Americans now who, for example, think peaches are supposed to be crisp.  <gah!>

    It's a great question and I'd love to see a break-down.  But I'd guess mark-up (ie, overhead and profits) would be one of the main things, followed by the cost of pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers.  Without the herbicides, though, the cost would go up more because the fields would have to be weeded extensively and repeatedly.  And without pesticides, even if you didn't lose an entire crop, produce would have <gasp!> cosmetic flaws that U.S. consumers have been brainwashed into believing are unacceptable.

    Our whole food system is just badly out of whack on many different levels, IMO.


    there's also packaging (5.00 / 1) (#23)
    by nycstray on Tue Sep 28, 2010 at 12:57:13 AM EST
    especially as they start going for more ready to eat salads etc. but even for the loose tomato, there's that lil' sticker on there and the facility/person needed to stick it on. and they have the 'washing' process. sometimes done in the field with mobile contraptions (would you like a lil' bleach wash with your spinach?) but also done in facilities. and then there's the packing for transport.

    part of the weeding could be handled by ground tarps, but they would prob still factor them in as if they were human labor (who me jaded?!)

    i think there is less spoilage than there prob is 'supermarket appealing' rejects . . .  some of that does go to other processors for what ever they can process, but I'm guessing there's a bit leftover still (off to feed etc). we may also pay for their 'loss' in supermarket unacceptable produce that goes to other processors who buy it at a super reduced rate to mass market cheap sh*t.

    I would also love to see how some of these mega places really breakout. And compare it to some of the mom/pop farms I buy from weekly who are charging (imo) very reasonable prices for their produce.

    isn't it amazing how long fresh picked lettuce can last?!~


    Ground tarps (none / 0) (#32)
    by gyrfalcon on Tue Sep 28, 2010 at 11:03:12 AM EST
    I don't think are at all practical for large scale farming.  You can't sow seed through them by machine, for one thing, so stuff would have to be laboriously hand-seeded or the fabric would have to be applied, again by hand, after the seedlings come up, unless there's some other technique for dealing with this that I'm not aware of.

    I use weed-suppresant fabric in parts of my garden, and it's a bloody, fussy pain in the neck to deal with.  It does reduce weeding by a lot, but I'm not sure the upfront time and labor involved is less than the weeding chores over the course of the season.


    LOL (none / 0) (#4)
    by squeaky on Mon Sep 27, 2010 at 06:10:13 PM EST
    Krugman was wrong...  

    A friend of mine who has a small farm in Spain invited two young Americans to help her with the Almond harvest this fall.

    They are just out of high school, strapping strong young men, eager to become WHOOFers. Upper middle class background, environmentally minded, eager to change the world....

    They have failed, miserably. The work is waaaaay to hard for them. My friend has wound up losing time taking care of them.... lol

    haven't harvested (none / 0) (#5)
    by nycstray on Mon Sep 27, 2010 at 06:35:37 PM EST
    but did spend a day planting potatoes and leeks. something about July heat and humidity in NYS always kept me away from the garlic harvest . . . . lesson learned . . . planting leeks requires less 'squats' than planting potatoes and cloud cover is a good thing  :) i doubt you would ever catch me out in the CA valleys during a harvest. i know the weather all too well . . . triple digits today.

    The temperature is a bit high (none / 0) (#9)
    by Harry Saxon on Mon Sep 27, 2010 at 07:48:52 PM EST
    for this time of year, and there weren't stretches of 100+ days in a row like last year in the San Joaquin Valley.

    this was an odd year (none / 0) (#18)
    by nycstray on Mon Sep 27, 2010 at 09:07:31 PM EST
    I remember the valley from being a native here. I was VERY careful when I decided where to live. so many places ruled out because they were too inland and/or valley :) I'm on the San Pablo bay and digging the weather so far.

    I haven't done farm work as a job, per se, (none / 0) (#16)
    by scribe on Mon Sep 27, 2010 at 08:50:10 PM EST
    though I have done a heck of a lot of gardening and pick-your-own over the years.  I can clean out a cherry tree in an hour and a half or two which, professionally speaking, is too slow.  That's actually easier than picking strawberries.

    I can tell you it is brutal, backbreaking work, hotter than hell and unrelenting.  It beats the hell out of your knees and back.  You stretch in directions you didn't think possible and reach farther, too, all of which gives you a seriously painful backside and throbbing hamstrings.  Try carrying an apple-picking sack sometime - maybe 30 or 40 pounds - and balancing on a tippy ladder.  Even a 2 gallon bucket of cherries - weighing maybe 15 pounds - makes climbing a ladder seriously dangerous.

    The only hotter job I did that I can think of was working in an iron foundry, the shift they gave me a tryout pouring molten iron.  And maybe Fort Benning in summer. But at Benning, they'd hose you down to keep you from overheating.  None of that in the fields.

    If you work at farm labor after 40, you're either indestructible, seriously desperate or plain nuts.

    So, why is it (none / 0) (#17)
    by NYShooter on Mon Sep 27, 2010 at 09:02:42 PM EST
    that whenever I relay my experience with hiring workers for this type of hard, tedious work, I get flamed into the strato-tubes?

    All the right wing, xenophobic morons screeching about how the "illegals" are stealing American jobs are simply using it as a pretext to spew their racist bilge.

    You can blame those "greedy" business men "taking advantage" of illegals all you want, but it won't change the facts: Americans simply won't do certain kinds of work!

    All Presidents, Democrats & Republicans alike, have just paid lip service to "sealing the borders" because they, and their economic advisors know that the day we seal the borders is the day America stops functioning.

    In fairness (5.00 / 1) (#22)
    by gyrfalcon on Tue Sep 28, 2010 at 12:23:09 AM EST
    I think we really don't know that Americans "won't do" this work.  They won't do it for the pittance those jobs pay.  There have always been plenty of young American men who do hard, awful, construction grunt work during summers off from high school and college, and I don't know that, for instance, road-paving is any less horrible than picking veg.  But the pay is generally pretty good.  I knew any number of guys who helped to pay their way through college by doing that before they went on to professional careers.

    my niece's boyfriend (5.00 / 1) (#24)
    by nycstray on Tue Sep 28, 2010 at 01:07:02 AM EST
    was out digging ditches etc for electrical work on a construction site in some pretty nasty heat. he came home covered in dirt. pay wasn't all that great considering he used to make about 3x as much . . . but he did it and would continue to if there's work to be had. he's in his early 30's.

    i do think asking former office workers to pick up and hit the fields might be a bit of a dream though. when we are looking at the UE rate vs field jobs open, we need to look at the demo of the unemployed. not sure my recently UE sister in her early 50's is ready to hit the fields . . .

    my hat goes off to all those outdoor workers in NYC who work through those awful august days while i sat under my AC working away on the computer :)


    I'm sorry, you are wrong (none / 0) (#33)
    by NYShooter on Tue Sep 28, 2010 at 11:44:55 PM EST
    First, the market determines pay and if the choice is between starving to death and working for a "pittance" most people would choose working, even for a "pittance.".......except Americans.

    And secondly, all the studies I've read conclude that how "hard" the work is has nothing to do with why Americans won't do certain types ofwork. The reason has to do with how Americans see themselves and whether the work is "beneath" them. So digging ditches, or doing "hard, awful, construction grunt work" is seen as "manly" and thus acceptable. But washing dishes, making beds, or picking lettuce is an affront to their dignity and will be rejected, no matter what the pay is.

    Look, it's not my analysis; just google "why Americans won't do that work" and you'll find dozens of University studies explaining this

    I'm an employer, I've hired thousands of people over the years. I wish this divisiveness wasn't so, but it is. And persecuting immigrants, legal or otherwise, because "they're stealing our jobs," is just a xenophobic ruse to explain away racism, pure and simple


    When I was a Midwestern teenager, (none / 0) (#25)
    by oculus on Tue Sep 28, 2010 at 01:13:46 AM EST
    the best paying job around was detasseling corn.  My older brother did it.  Made alot of money.  My parents wouldn't let me.  Thought I wasn't hardy enough.  My brother agrees.  He sd. it was the pits and the idea was to get to be a contractor who hired other kids to do the actual detaseling.

    key is best-paying (none / 0) (#29)
    by diogenes on Tue Sep 28, 2010 at 09:44:39 AM EST
    Pay farm workers twenty dollars an hour and see what happens before throwing up your hands and admitting illegal aliens (whose Americanized kids also won't do farm work for seven dollars an hour, thus justifying a perpetual cycle of illegals).

    A key (none / 0) (#30)
    by Rojas on Tue Sep 28, 2010 at 10:57:27 AM EST
    What you say is not far off the mark. We actually very much need to import workers from South America or where ever. The real issue is the way we have done it. The trade in illegal workers have allowed the bottom rail employers to be on top. There is a very disproportionate effect on those displaced as these folks were on a short thread of support to begin with. What and how this has been been done is unconsionable.