Mexico’s agricultural labor force decreasing by 150,000 per year

At this week’s Oregon Wine Symposium in Portland, Ore., Ed Taylor, professor of agricultural and resource economics at UC Davis, painted a bleak picture of the long-term agricultural labor supply in the United States. Taylor said that Mexico’s agricultural labor force, which provides a large percentage of the workers in the U.S., is currently decreasing by 1% per year.

“That’s a big decrease,” he said, noting that there are 150,000 fewer farm workers coming out of rural Mexico each year. Taylor said this will directly affect U.S. agricultural labor supply. “We could be looking at a decrease of 10,000 Mexican workers on U.S. farms each year,” he said.

Taylor’s conclusions are based on a long-term study of a representative sample of Mexico’s rural agricultural labor force. The research found that there are a variety of factors contributing to the farm labor shortage, including increased education in Mexico.

“Nothing pulls a kid out of farm work more quickly than a little bit of schooling,” said Taylor, adding that the average years of education in Mexico now stands at nine and a half years, a dramatic increase from previous decades. Mexico’s fertility rates, which have converged with those in the U.S., are also having an impact. “Farm families are getting smaller,” Taylor said. “That means that there are fewer kids growing up who can potentially become farm workers.”

Meanwhile, Mexico’s own agricultural needs are growing, outstripping supply such that the country is importing workers from Central America. This decreases pressure on agricultural workers to look for work elsewhere. “We have to more than match the value that workers are producing in Mexico in order to induce them to come here,” Taylor said.

Concurrently, Mexico’s non-farm labor economy is rising, providing workers with better opportunities at home. “When you’re getting educated while the non-farm economy in Mexico is growing, it’s a no brainer that you’re going to take your education to the non-farm jobs instead of going out and picking crops,” Taylor said.

Taylor stated that intervening factors, such as economic conditions in the U.S. compared to Mexico, U.S. immigration policy, and border violence can have a short-term effect on the situation, but the long-term prognosis would remain the same. “Hoping that the workers will come back, that is a non-starter based on what we’re seeing in these data,” he said.

The research indicates that certain factors, such as increasing wages, could help encourage workers to come to the U.S. “As farm wages go up, people’s likelihood of doing farm work also goes up,” said Taylor. He noted that wineries can expect vineyard labor costs to continue to increase in the coming years. “The costs aren’t going to go away,” Taylor said. “They are going to keep going up.”

While some have hoped changes to U.S. immigration policy could affect the equation, Taylor said it would not provide a long-term solution to Mexico’s rapidly changing demographics. “It’s only one of many intervening variables against a backdrop of bigger things that are happening,” he said of immigration reform.

Rather, Taylor said the long-term solution is to look for ways to make vineyard work more efficient. “The bottom line here is that you have to find ways to save on labor as labor costs go up and labor becomes more scarce,” he said. “We need to prepare a farm work force that’s going to look very different from the one that we have today.”