President-elect Donald Trump has promised a major crackdown on illegal immigration, triggering immense alarm among the country's 11 million undocumented people. But Trump’s deportation promises, if fulfilled, would ripple far beyond the lives of illegal immigrants. Deportations would affect vast swaths of the economy — with a particularly dramatic impact on agriculture.
As a result, Americans could see the cost of some fruits and vegetables soar.
Undocumented workers account for 67 percent of people harvesting fruit, according to the Agriculture Department. They make up 61 percent of all employees on vegetable farms, and as many as half of all workers picking crops.
Agricultural economists across the political spectrum say that there’s no way that workforce could be raptured up without reverberations throughout the food system — think farm bankruptcies, labor shortages and an eventual contraction of the broader economy. And even if you’re far from the agriculture industry, you could see $4 milk, low-quality oranges, and extortionately priced raspberries.
The logic behind these dire predictions is pretty straightforward. If Trump were to begin deporting farmworkers or requiring that farms verify their work status, farmers would have three ways to fill in the labor gaps. They could hire legally authorized workers, who are vastly more expensive; switch away from crops that require human laborers to harvest them; or cut production, allowing fields to fallow and fruit to go unharvested.
Whichever way you slice it, farmers pay more to produce less — which could squeeze the budgets of the very Americans who supported Trump’s immigration message. To many of them, mass deportation sounded attractive in the abstract. But practically speaking, the economy is so complex — and so interdependent — that Trump could not possibly deport the country’s 11 million undocumented people without also impacting middle-Americans’ wallets.
In fact, to keep costs under control, Americans may end up being forced to buy more groceries from abroad, undermining Trump's effort to boost American industry.
Exactly how much Trump’s deportation policy would affect grocery prices is up for debate. Agricultural labor accounts for only a small share of the cost of most foods: about 1.6 cents of every dollar on average, according to the USDA. Overall, the impact of stricter immigration policy on grocery costs would be “very small,” said Steven Zahniser, an economist with the Economic Research Service. A 2014 analysis by World Agricultural Economic and Environmental Services, a market intelligence firm, puts the increase at about 5 to 6 percent.
But that’s an across-the-board average, which includes everything from labor-intensive foods to totally mechanized crops.
“The [labor share of grocery costs] depends entirely on what you buy and how much it’s automated,” said Michael Roberts, an agricultural economist at the University of Hawaii. “For some goods, the labor costs are already pretty high. And we don’t know how much higher they’d have to go to fill positions.”
Take sweet cherries, for instance, which must be picked by hand — slowly, and below certain temperatures — to prevent bruising. Labor costs account for between 45 and 60 percent of costs, according to the California Cherry Board, and many growers already operate on razor-thin margins.
Dana Branson, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Sweet Cherry Commission and a cherry grower herself, said that growers in her area struggle to find enough workers. Americans generally aren’t interested in the difficult, tedious job of harvesting. And although there is a temporary visa for seasonal farmworkers, called H-2A, the program is expensive, time-consuming and frequently delivers workers after they’re needed.
As a result, many farms hire from the established, resident labor pools in their area, where workers are typically foreign-born and may lack legal status. Branson says that any increase in labor prices might spell the end of the U.S. cherry business.
“I’d be out. I’m small. It would kill small farmers — we would all be out,” she said. “I wonder what even big farms would do if that happened.”
Asparagus is similarly labor intensive: The plants must be hand-cut multiple times per day during their two-month harvest season. Labor accounts for about 82 percent of farmers’ operating costs, according to the Agricultural Issues Center at the University of California at Davis. Labor costs for San Joaquin Valley oranges top out at 67 percent of operating costs; for wine grapes, costs can range from 48 to 72 percent. Berries, peppers, onions, watermelons and apples are also typically picked, often at great expense, by hand.
Although it’s difficult to gauge exactly how much of those costs would be passed onto consumers, should labor prices increase, Roberts said it would be many times greater than the 5 to 6 percent predicted generally. The one recent analysis to tackle this question head-on — a 2015 study on the dairy industry commissioned by the National Milk Producers Federation and conducted by economists at Texas A&M University — concluded that even a 50 percent reduction in the dairy industry’s 80,000 immigrant workers would increase the price of milk by 45.2 percent.
To give you an idea what that would look like, the average cost of a gallon of milk is $2.72. In Trump’s America, that could go north of $3.90 a gallon. Of course, this figure presupposes we’d still be drinking U.S. milk, which is anything but certain. Another unintended consequence of higher agricultural labor costs is that imports would become vastly more competitive — meaning that grocery stores may stock Chilean apples or Chinese peppers where they once had the American-grown versions.
“There are some fruits and vegetables we just might not be able to produce in the U.S. anymore,” said Luis Ribera, an agricultural economist at Texas A&M. “We had a farm labor shortage even without Trump. Whatever he does will just compound the problem.”
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