How the Agriculture Industry Can Address the Farm Labor Crisis
Kevin Murphy is the former CEO of Driscoll’s
Recent reports suggest that agriculture industry leaders have found common ground for addressing farm labor shortages through immigration policy.
There Is an Ongoing, Severe Farm Labor Shortage in the U.S
The momentum behind this potential breakthrough stems from the severity of the labor shortage among farmworkers, which I have witnessed firsthand as the former CEO of Driscoll’s, the fresh berry company. The company has grown, profited, and expanded worldwide while creating tremendous opportunity for small, independent farmers.
There is just one small caveat: Up to half of its enterprise workforce may be undocumented and at risk. Driscoll’s is not exceptional in this regard. The American Farm Bureau Federation notes that “50-70 percent of farm laborers in the country today are unauthorized. Few U.S. workers are willing to fill available farm labor jobs.”1
That second sentence hints at the scale of the challenge: This is not a matter of simply replacing an undocumented workforce with American citizens and other legal workers. It’s a matter of survival, a question of whether foreign-born hands will produce our food here in the United States, or in other countries for us to import.
This challenge also is personal to me. I immigrated to this country almost 30 years ago. My life in the United States has been a wonderful ride with all sorts of opportunities to pursue the American dream, for which I am immensely grateful.
But often I look across fields and see people close to my age who have worked just as hard, who have been just as good citizens (even though some are not citizens at all), but who are at risk for deportation.
They responded to a metaphorical “Help Wanted” sign and work tough, relatively low-paying jobs. Many undocumented workers are paying taxes and paying into Social Security without the possibility of seeing the benefits later in life. This, coupled with the money they are investing in local economies, creates a positive economic impact. Centuries of immigration to the U.S. has proved this point over and over.
Our response has been: nothing. No way to get right with the law, no way to become full-fledged participants in a country whose homegrown food supply depends on them, and to which they give so much.
We can do better, and the recent news of possible consensus within the industry offers hope. Despite the ubiquitous rhetoric around immigration, our legislators and the president have an opportunity to lead the way to bipartisan compromise.
The Solution: A Comprehensive and Coordinated Effort
Here’s what it would take.
First, we need a viable guest worker program that allows for the kinds of workers we have on farms—quite skilled in our industry, even though they are often referred to as “low-skilled.” Agriculture and other sectors depend on them. The farming community would embrace a guest worker program that works.
Second, undocumented workers who are in good legal standing should have the opportunity to earn legal status. That would provide safety for hard workers, and more stability and certainty for their employers. Let’s create a process that brings people into the light, in both a legal and economic sense, rather than driving them deeper into the shadows.
Finally, and dependent upon the steps above, we will need to update our laws in ways that keep our border secure, emphasize legal immigration, and discourage illegal immigration. A reliable system under which to verify employment eligibility would be a part of this approach.
For all this to work, it has to be comprehensive and coordinated. It will be critically important that we begin with the first two steps above; otherwise, chaos will ensue, with social and economic consequences.
We know that the devil will be in the details. Democrats and Republicans will have to give a little to get a lot, and each side will need to be able to claim victory. But on the farm and across the country, more Americans than you might think are ready for a conversation around immigration that is unifying rather than polarizing.
Ensuring that legislators on both sides of the aisle hear support from their constituents requires addressing anxieties related to immigration that are justified as demographics change. People are concerned about whether their culture is changing, and whether they are secure physically and economically.
The solutions begin with renewing our commitment to the phrase that appears on our currency: Out of many, we are one. All of us, no matter where you were born, can unite around the idea that America is special. All of us want an America that is secure, and all of us want an America that prospers.
Our nation is exceptional precisely because we are a land of opportunity. Economically and otherwise, we are in trouble if we can’t find workers to help drive growth.
The moment has come for our elected leaders to bring us together, keep us secure, and stabilize the labor force that puts U.S.-grown food on our tables.
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About the Author
Former CEO, Driscoll’s
Kevin Murphy is the former CEO of Driscoll’s Inc. and was responsible for all worldwide operations. Driscoll’s grows and markets fresh strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries worldwide. They are headquartered in California with operations in thirty countries and sales in more than sixty countries. Driscoll’s and its growers hire roughly 70,000 workers annually in the U.S. alone, which makes the Driscoll’s enterprise one of the largest agricultural employers in the U.S. The lack of ag labor is considered a critical threat to the future of the agricultural industry in the U.S., especially for those labor intensive crops such as berries.
Over the last few years, Kevin has been active in driving for immigration reform that will allow for undocumented workers to receive legal status in the U.S. He has worked with various subcommittees of Congress and visited the White House, on two different occasions, to argue for change. In 2017, he testified in front of Congress on the role of technology in agriculture and the need for immigration reform. His advocacy efforts have included writing an op ed piece in the Wall Street Journal outlining three key elements needed for effective change, being an active member of the Immigration Forum Group, and speaking at various conferences on the subject of immigration reform.
Beyond immigration reform Kevin has been active in the recent NAFTA negotiations, helping form the Coalition of Produce for NAFTA in response to the current administration efforts to remove the U.S. from the 25-year agreement. This coalition had many of the leading brands in produce and was actively working with the Canadian, Mexican, and United States governments to maintain the important trading elements of NAFTA while at the same time upgrading key components around food safety, immigration, and worker welfare. The latest signing of the USMCA agreement reflects much of the changes proposed by the Coalition of Produce for NAFTA.
Kevin has been involved in agriculture on the Central Coast of California for almost 30 years in key leadership roles. Prior to his role at Driscoll’s, he served as President for Capurro Farms and led this family-owned company through a series of transformations that led to a merger of Capurro Farms with Growers Express. Kevin’s career also includes working at Fresh Express for over 10 years. During that period, he held various jobs that included heading up strategic planning, marketing, and operations for the company. He is now active on several boards and provides advice to leading agricultural and food organizations around the world.
Kevin was born and grew up in South Africa. He has an undergraduate degree in agricultural economics from the University of Kwazulu Natal in South Africa and an MBA from Edinburgh Business School, Herriot Watt University in Scotland.
1 Retrieved May 6, 2020, from fb.org/issues/immigration-reform/agriculture-labor-reform/economic-impact-of-immigration