Farm Labor Shortage Could Drive Up Produce Prices

Growers don't have enough help to harvest crops.

immigration changes cause farm worker shortage
Photo: Elisa Cicinelli / Getty Images

Adding guacamole to your burrito is about to get even pricier. And that package of almonds will likely cost you extra as well. Although California's drought happily ended this spring, causing avocado lovers across the nation to breathe a collective sigh of relief, labor is becoming another issue entirely. There's a severe labor shortage affecting farms across the U.S., particularly in California where a large share of our country's produce is grown.

Immigrant laborers pick the vast majority of our crops, making up 90% of that workforce. However, the government deported 3 million undocumented immigrants between 2009 and 2016. To put that into perspective, in 2007 the U.S. was home to 12.8 Mexican immigrants, by 2014 that number was closer to 11.7 million NBC reports. Additionally, new policy proposals would only add to the trend.

Why is this trend about to effect your avocado addiction? Well, let's break it down. Loss of employees means some farmers are forced to leave 15-20% of crops in the ground. Not only does this result in a significant reduction in income for farms (specifically 9% net loss since 2016 and 50% since 2013), it also means there will be fewer fruits and vegetables on supermarket shelves. The laws of supply and demand can explain the rest. Note that, produce is more sensitive to price changes than other crops because it's harder to preserve, compared to commodities like corn and grain.

Additionally, food prices continue to rise for other reasons. The heavy rain that ended the drought actually drowned lettuce crops and caused their price to soar. Taxes and farmer subsidies play a role too.

What is to be done? No one is totally certain. More farmers are providing 401(k)s and higher wages than before to lure employees. And the silver lining, as thin as it may be, is that overall, vegetable prices have not risen just yet, even though fruit prices have.

So in the meantime, we suggest you hop to it and start canning or freezing. Remember frozen food can be surprisingly delicious and nutritious.

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