2| Even before COVID-19 struck, America's farms faced a chronic labor shortage crisis
The American Farm Bureau Federation estimates that, in total, U.S. agriculture needs 1.5 to 2 million hired workers each year. Farmers are struggling to fill these positions; in 2019, 56% of California farmers reported being unable to find all the workers they needed over the last five years.
This is partly because, even when wages and benefits are increased, there are still not enough U.S. citizens applying. The current agricultural workforce is also aging, requiring younger workers to replace them. Immigrants have filled these shortfalls in the workforce for decades, but in recent years, fewer immigrants are coming to the U.S. to work in agriculture, a result of current U.S. immigration policy and rising incomes in Mexico.
The labor shortage puts American agriculture at a competitive disadvantage. American growers’ inability to find dependable sources of labor is a major reason for the significant increase in the amount of fresh fruit and vegetables that are imported into the U.S, costing billions in sales and tens of thousands of jobs. Without workers, crops wither in the fields, contributing to food waste and millions of dollars in lost production.
In 2020, this chronic labor shortage was further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced employers to keep workers at home and restricted access to foreign-born workers that farmers had been planning to employ.