The UK and US are headed for a crisis as crack-downs on immigration threaten to make it harder for agriculture to find the labour it requires. The problem, of course, is that most Westerners don’t want to do the hard, physical labour required in agriculture – toiling in the fields is not something most people in wealthier countries aspire to, so this has long been done by migrant labourers, mostly the poorest of the poor looking for better money than they can make in their own countries.

But if migrant labour is reduced, what will be the impact on agriculture? In California, some farmers are clearing out their vineyards and planting yet more nut trees, which require far less labour to maintain. While wages for workers are going up, it’s still not tempting Americans to take jobs as farms labourers. Will the same hold true for the UK – finding British agricultural workers is still hard and the agricultural workforce in the country is largely Eastern European. A hard Brexit with no freedom of movement could hit hard at the country’s agriculture. Without the influx of migrant labour on British crops, the country’s food security could be even more imperilled. Mechanisation is both saviour and threat – as the workforce for agriculture declines, will machines take its place? Is this the answer for agriculture? Throughout discussions about both Brexit and Trump’s proposed wall along the southern border, the potential impacts on the agriculture industry have not been vetted nearly enough.

Why is agriculture reliant on a migrant workforce?

Decades of past immigration policies have caused the agricultural industries of the UK and US to become dependent on foreign workers from poorer countries. The agricultural sector in the UK argues that the seasonality of farmwork and low unemployment rates across the UK make it difficult to attract domestic workers and the industry has been reliant on a migrant workforce for years. To meet growing labour shortages and continuously changing labour demand in agriculture and horticulture, the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) was introduced in 1945 after World War II. The programme facilitated the movement of workers across Europe in order to meet agricultural labour demands during peak seasons.

Likewise in the US, the Immigration and Control Reform Act of 1986 (IRCA), has also helped to create an industry entirely dependent on an immigrant workforce. Since 1986, IRCA has prohibited employers from questioning the legitimacy of documents offered by applicants that testified to their identity and work authorization. Many immigrants have remained in the US, working on farms and in other jobs, using fraudulent documents as a result of this policy. Gaining citizenship in the US is a lengthy process and it can take years for low-skilled workers to complete, if they ever do. Contrary to the belief that immigrants are taking jobs from Americans, the reality is that immigrants are taking up farm labour jobs that no American wants. Rising farm wages have not persuaded domestic workers to take on the physically demanding farm labour roles, while immigrants seize the economic opportunity to earn more than they could in their home countries by working on American farms.

The current labour shortage crisis

The decline of migrant workers in the UK, or ‘Brexodus’ as it has been called, is being felt significantly in agriculture. Since 2007, SAWS has only been open to workers from Bulgaria and Romania and it was ultimately closed at the end of 2013. A new source of seasonal labour has not been identified and farmers fear the impacts of Brexit will only exacerbate the issue of labour shortages. According to the National Farmers Union, 75% of seasonal labour in the horticulture sector is recruited from Bulgaria and Romania. However, this number is declining as living standards in eastern Europe improve and concerns over Brexit mean fewer migrant workers are travelling to the UK. Farmers are calling on the Government for a new programme similar to SAWS, especially as immigration control increases.

According to a recent New York Times article, British agriculture experienced a labour decrease of “between 13% and 29% on a monthly basis from May to September.” The industry expects the shortage to be worse next year. Soft fruit farmers have struggled the most because their products require a human touch. Many have left crops rotting in the fields due to declining migrant labour this past growing season.

It’s no surprise to the Government that UK farmers are now desperately facing a shortage of workers. When closing SAWS in 2013, the Migration Advisory Committee was tasked with determining the future impacts to the UK agricultural sector. According to their findings outlined in a report on migrant seasonal labourers, the committee stated:

“We found little evidence that, following the closure of the current scheme at the end of 2013, the current supply of seasonal workers from Bulgaria and Romania will decline in the short term. However, in the medium term, farmers are likely to experience increasing difficulties sourcing the required level of seasonal labour from the EU (including the UK) labour market. A new source of seasonal labour is likely to be required.”

Anti-immigration lobbying groups in the UK still express doubts about the need for any seasonal labour scheme, arguing that immigration is not an optimal solution to agricultural labour shortages. The way in which the Government will control migrant labour for agriculture, post-Brexit, is still yet to be determined.

The Trump administration has been increasing immigration control as well, without a plan to address the current experienced, but unauthorized, workforce of farm labourers, or the current visa programme. According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, the largest general farm organization in the US, “enforcement-only immigration reform” will cost the US $60 billion in agricultural production and cause food prices to rise 5 – 6% . Like the UK, farmers in the US have faced a consistent labour shortage for years, and the constant political and media attention on immigration issues leave farmers feeling there is no solution in sight. President Trump has also suggested instituting mandatory E-Verify, a federal online system to determine authorization to work in the US. Since many workers used fraudulent documents to enter and work on farms, and farmers could not question them due to the stipulations of IRCA, an unauthorized, skilled workforce has grown over the past 25 years. Without a guest worker visa programme in place for farmers to access new labour, the livelihood of many farms is threatened as enforcement increases.

A current alternative for US farmers, is using the federal H2-A visa programme which was instituted as a part of IRCA to meet the need for seasonal and temporary labour, however, it continues to fall short. It requires a myriad of upfront costs to farmers and is a bureaucratic nightmare to navigate. Additionally, there have been many documented cases of labourers arriving late to the farm because of logistical issues in the US Department of Labor due to an increase in applications to the H2-A programme. This is detrimental in a seasonal business. Despite the programme’s many shortcomings, enrolment by US farmers in the programme has increased because of the limited options for finding labour. A cap on the amount of workers allowed to enter the country through the H2-A programme would be devastating to agriculture.

With less labour, what happens to agriculture?

Two Governments with major agricultural industries are simultaneously increasing immigration control without any solutions to offer farmers, who are the first to feel the impacts of stricter immigration policies. What options do farmers have?

Many farmers are investing in mechanisation to replace human labour wherever possible, but not all farm labourers can be replaced by machines. The demand for fresh produce continues and there is a lack of equipment that can properly harvest these crops. Private companies are working on developing new machines to pick produce and replace workers and the federal government continues to allocate dollars towards robotics research for agriculture. It is still too soon to tell if these innovations will be successful.

In the short term, it’s likely there will be a change to less labour-intensive crops and downsizing of farms across the UK and US. Farmers will transition to producing higher value products with less labour and offering higher wages to the labourers available. The farms that cannot afford to pay higher wages or find any labour will go out of business. The loss of farms means more importing of food to the UK and US.

It is argued that stricter immigration policy is necessary for national security, but jeopardizing food security is a national security issue in itself. Ultimately, instability in the agricultural workforce places the food supply at risk.

Photograph: Gary Naylor

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