Down on the farm

By Cate Long
October 19, 2011

The future for young Americans may increasingly be down on the farm. Farmers have been begging for a new class of laborers to replace illegal immigrants as law enforcement officials enforce new bans on migrants’ employment eligibility. And with the unemployment rate for 16-24 year-olds at 17.5 percent, there are plenty of young, idle hands that could till the nation’s crops.

If only it were that simple. Several reports came out today that American citizens were generally not capable of doing farm labor. The AP reported:

Jerry Spencer had an idea after Alabama’s tough new law against illegal immigration scared Hispanic workers out of the tomato fields northeast of Birmingham: Recruit unemployed U.S. citizens to do the work, give them free transportation and pay them to pick the fruit and clean the fields.

After two weeks, Spencer said Monday, the experiment is a failure. Jobless resident Americans lack the physical stamina and the mental toughness to see the job through, he said, and there’s not much of a chance a new state program to fill the jobs will fare better.

That is a pretty damning condemnation of resident Americans if they really lack the “physical stamina and the mental toughness” to do hard labor. If we keep running off the illegal immigrants who have done this work for years, who will pick the nations fruits and vegetables? It’s possible that wage scales for illegal immigrants are not sustainable for resident Americans.

There is another class of our countrymen, according to the Wall Street Journal, that could potentially make up the next pool of farm laborers — prisoners. From the WSJ:

“This is the first year we’re doing a harvest,” said Steve Little, warden here at the minimum-security St. Anthony Work Camp. Prior to this season, he explained, inmates worked mainly in processing sheds and kitchens, not open fields. But farm labor is so scarce, Mr. Little said, that prisoners now pick as well as pack potatoes.

Despite high unemployment across the U.S., many farmers are struggling to find hands willing to labor in their fields. From Arizona to Alabama, states are cracking down on undocumented migrant labor with legislation that gets tough on employers. One result: some “illegal” farm hands are being replaced by criminal ones.

Americans have farmed for over 300 years in the area where I reside in upstate New York, and it’s always been one of the toughest forms of manual labor. But it’s hard to understand that with over 3.6 million young people unemployed there aren’t some among that group who could withstand the rigors of that work.

Chart source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey

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