POLITICS
02/15/2017 04:12 pm ET | Updated 6 days ago

Farmers Supported Trump. His Proposals Have Them Thinking Again

Farmworkers, employers and trade groups are all concerned with Trump's plans on immigration and trade.

Credit: Mike Blake/Reuters
Farm workers pick eggplant on a farm in Rancho Santa Fe, California. President Donald Trump's immigration proposals could make a big impact on the U.S. food system.

When President Donald Trump was elected last fall, it was with an apparent majority of the nation’s farmers behind him.

But now, three weeks since Trump’s inauguration, some of those farmers appear to be having second thoughts.

Dairy farmers and fruit and vegetable growers, both of whom rely heavily on an immigrant workforce to harvest their goods, are expressing fears that Trump’s promise to up immigration enforcement and build a border wall with Mexico could eliminate much of its workforce.

Commodity farmers are also concerned that a 20-percent import tax on Mexican goods ― an idea the Trump administration has floated ― could hobble their businesses

Many agriculture industry groups are similarly dismayed by plans to jettison both the Trans-Pacific Partnership and North American Free Trade Agreement.

Of course, the impact of these proposed actions won’t stop at the farm. If they are carried out, American eaters — as well as the environment — could bear that brunt as well. Here’s how:

Higher Food Prices At The Grocery Store

If stepped-up immigration enforcement efforts target farmworkers, sectors of the farming industry that rely on immigrant workers will be affected the most.

Between 50 and 70 percent of the nation’s farmworkers working for fresh produce growers and dairy farms are undocumented. If these sectors lose a significant amount of their existing immigrant workforce, they will need to raise wages to attract replacement workers and attracting them would be no easy task.

Farm groups have repeatedly emphasized that U.S.-born workers have shown little interest in the grueling work and the industry already says it’s facing a severe labor shortage due to the previous administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants. As a result, farmworker wages have been rising with demand in recent years, though their pay still averages about $12 an hour.

Additional farm labor costs would likely be passed on to consumers.

A 2015 report commissioned by the National Milk Producers Federation and produced by Texas A&M University researchers found that a total loss of the industry’s immigrant workforce would result in a 90-percent surge in retail milk prices. Factoring in the current national average retail price of milk, that means a gallon of conventional milk would cost $5.42 and a gallon of organic milk would cost $9.38 under such a scenario.

“We know that nobody wants to pay $8 for a gallon of milk and certainly nobody wants a food product like milk to come from foreign countries,” Jaime Castaneda, NMPF senior vice president in strategic initiatives and trade policy, told The Huffington Post. “We need to find a balance here.”

Additional research has shown that a similar price increase, linked to reduced output, would likely happen with labor-intensive food products like fruits, vegetables and tree nuts.

A 2012 report from U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers found that if 5.8 million undocumented workers, including farmworkers, exited the economy, the result would be reduced farm output, fewer exports and increased wages ― costs, again, to be passed on to consumers. Similarly, an analysis commissioned by the American Farm Bureau Foundation found that the exit of immigrant farmworkers could increase food prices by an average of 5 to 6 percent.

Such increases could hit low-income households ― which already struggle to afford fresh fruits and vegetables ― particularly hard, especially if accompanied by rumored cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. 

Reduced Availability Of Some Foods — Not Just Avocados

If a Mexican import tax coupled with NAFTA and TPP disruptions spurs a trade war, certain imported fresh produce items could not only become pricier, but also tougher to find altogether, at least temporarily.

Mexico is the leading exporter of fresh produce to the U.S., according to the USDA. In addition to avocados, the U.S. also imports hundreds of thousands of tons of Mexican produce — like limes, mangoes, grapes, pineapples, papayas and strawberries — each year.

Kathy Means, vice president of industry relations at the Produce Marketing Association, a trade group, admitted that the administration’s trade proposals are a concern for the group, though she added that produce supplies always fluctuate due to many factors — like extreme weather or a crop disease — and that the industry is used to adapting.

“We’re watching this very closely,” Means told HuffPost. “Could it have an impact? Absolutely it could. But it’s more complex than it may appear on the surface.”

Looking beyond produce from Mexico, a trade war could also threaten the nation’s entirely imported coffee and cocoa supply, as well as its mostly imported seafood supply. And such a scenario would also affect U.S. farmers who depend on exports like wheat, soybeans, rice and corn.

Credit: Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images
Without the fresh fruits and vegetables the U.S. imports from Mexico, our produce sections at grocery and convenience stores could look very different.

Increased Food Waste On Farms

A heightened farm labor crisis could also mean more crops left in the fields to rot, hurting farmers’ bottom lines in addition to releasing climate change-accelerating methane into the atmosphere.

This is a concern for Joshua Morgenthau, owner and operator of Fishkill Farms, a small-scale farm and apple orchard located in Hopewell Junction, New York.

Morgenthau regularly places job advertisements aimed at interested applicants of all backgrounds, including U.S.-born workers. But, like many farm employers, he says he rarely receives any responses. Domestic workers, he says, simply don’t appear to be willing to do this work.

In order to get his crops harvested, he hires eight seasonal migrant workers who obtain visas through the U.S. Department of Labor’s H-2A program each year.

He would like to see an expanded H-2A program and a path to a legal status for migrant farmworkers in good standing. If that doesn’t happen, he fears Trump’s immigration plans could be a disaster.

Crops will go unharvested because of the shortfall of qualified labor,” Morgenthau told HuffPost. “Our food will rot in the fields and the price of local produce will skyrocket.”

Credit: Karl Gehring/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Migrant laborers picking tomatoes on the Hanagan farm outside Swink in the Arkansas Valley. An estimated 50-70 percent of the nation's farmworkers are undocumented.

‘We Will Lose The Food Security We Have In This Country’

Amid reports that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement already made nearly 700 arrests of undocumented immigrants last week, immigrant farmworkers are facing heightened stress, though there have been no reports thus far of any immigration raids targeting farms. 

Bruce Goldstein, president of the Farmworker Justice advocacy group, told HuffPost reports of those raids sent “a strong message” to farmworkers and their families — as well as their employers.

“They are living in fear of deportation and having their families split up. They don’t know what to do,” Goldstein said. “They are living under great stress.”

Like Morgenthau, Goldstein believes the solution to the problem includes a pathway to a legal status for immigrant farmworkers. He also believes farmworker deportations would cripple the U.S. food system. 

“This could have a devastating effect on the sector,” Goldstein said. “Agriculture businesses will not be able to produce food and there will be food shortages. We will lose the food security we have in this country.”

‘Mass Deportation Is Not A Solution’

Whatever actions on farm policy the Trump administration ultimately follows through on, Barbara Patterson, government relations director at the National Farmers Union, hopes care will be taken to not make a situation that’s already difficult for family farmers even worse.

As The Wall Street Journal reported last week, farming incomes are on the decline, causing many farmers to struggle, sliding into debt or even shutting down their operations altogether. Some in the industry fear that a wave of farm closures not seen since the 1980s may not be far behind.

Patterson believes Trump’s planned approach to immigration ― if it comes to the agriculture sector ― won’t help matters.

“Folks in rural America wanted change. I think that much is clear,” Patterson said. “But farm country is hurting right now and we need to be very careful about how we move forward on issues like trade and immigration. Mass deportation is not a solution for U.S. agriculture.”

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Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food, water, agriculture and our climate. Follow Erbentraut on Twitter at @robojojo. Tips? Email joseph.erbentraut@huffingtonpost.com.

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