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What Immigration Reform Means for the Food System

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When she was U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, Kathleen Merrigan focused mainly on local and regional food systems. But she doesn't think we'll be able to count on local food for much longer if we don't take a close look at how and why today's farms employ their workers.

"Immigration reform is essential to agriculture's continuation in this country," Merrigan, who retired from her post at USDA last year and will soon begin directing the sustainability center at George Washington University, tells Civil Eats. "There's no industry that's more strapped than agriculture now for lack of immigration reform."

A White House report released last year highlighted the economic incentives that an improved immigration system could bring to agriculture-and the economic risks the industry faces without it. The administration cited one study predicting that without access to unauthorized workers, U.S. farm output would fall between three and six percent and lose up to $12 billion. Projected losses in California alone ran as high as $4 billion.

While farm owners and farmworkers both agree that change is necessary-and have even come to agree on what that change should look like-in reality, change is proving difficult. Not terribly surprising, the fight has been stuck in Congress despite months of debate, and despite promises of a solution from both parties.

The Vegetables Won't Pick Themselves

"Normally I would leave this to the invisible hand of the market, but the invisible hand of the market has already moved over 84,000 acres of production and over 22,000 farm jobs to Mexico and shut down over a million acres of US farmland due to lack of available labor, because apparently even the invisible hand doesn't want to pick beans." - Sephen Colbert testifying before Congress on behalf of farmworkers in 2010.

Agriculture depends-as do other sectors of the food industry-on cheap labor. More often than not, that means foreign-born workers, who comprise up to 90 percent of the seasonal workforce, according to the National Council of Agricultural Employers. Many of these workers are undocumented and most have been willing to work for piece-rates in the past.

When the numbers of people willing to work these jobs falls, as it has in recent years, the industry is particularly vulnerable. Frank Gasperini, CEO of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, says that farms have reported labor shortages growing worse since 2010, reaching as high as 50 percent at times.   
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