Farmers Supported Trump. His Proposals Have Them Thinking Again

Joseph Erbentraut
The Huffington Post
February 15, 2017

When President Donald Trump was elected last fall, it was with an apparent majority of the nation’s farmers behind him.

But now, three weeks since Trump’s inauguration, some of those farmers appear to be having second thoughts.

Dairy farmers and fruit and vegetable growers, both of whom rely heavily on an immigrant workforce to harvest their goods, are expressing fears that Trump’s promise to up immigration enforcement and build a border wall with Mexico could eliminate much of its workforce.

Commodity farmers are also concerned that a 20-percent import tax on Mexican goods ― an idea the Trump administration has floated ― could hobble their businesses. 

Many agriculture industry groups are similarly dismayed by plans to jettison both the Trans-Pacific Partnership and North American Free Trade Agreement.

Of course, the impact of these proposed actions won’t stop at the farm. If they are carried out, American eaters — as well as the environment — could bear that brunt as well. Here’s how:

Higher Food Prices At The Grocery Store

If stepped-up immigration enforcement efforts target farmworkers, sectors of the farming industry that rely on immigrant workers will be affected the most.

Between 50 and 70 percent of the nation’s farmworkers working for fresh produce growers and dairy farms are undocumented. If these sectors lose a significant amount of their existing immigrant workforce, they will need to raise wages to attract replacement workers ― and attracting them would be no easy task.

Farm groups have repeatedly emphasized that U.S.-born workers have shown little interest in the grueling work and the industry already says it’s facing a severe labor shortage due to the previous administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants. As a result, farmworker wages have been rising with demand in recent years, though their pay still averages about $12 an hour.

Additional farm labor costs would likely be passed on to consumers.

A 2015 report commissioned by the National Milk Producers Federation and produced by Texas A&M University researchers found that a total loss of the industry’s immigrant workforce would result in a 90-percent surge in retail milk prices. Factoring in the current national average retail price of milk, that means a gallon of conventional milk would cost $5.42 and a gallon of organic milk would cost $9.38 under such a scenario.

“We know that nobody wants to pay $8 for a gallon of milk and certainly nobody wants a food product like milk to come from foreign countries,” Jaime Castaneda, NMPF senior vice president in strategic initiatives and trade policy, told The Huffington Post. “We need to find a balance here.”

Additional research has shown that a similar price increase, linked to reduced output, would likely happen with labor-intensive food products like fruits, vegetables and tree nuts.

A 2012 report from U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers found that if 5.8 million undocumented workers, including farmworkers, exited the economy, the result would be reduced farm output, fewer exports and increased wages ― costs, again, to be passed on to consumers. Similarly, an analysis commissioned by the American Farm Bureau Foundation found that the exit of immigrant farmworkers could increase food prices by an average of 5 to 6 percent.

Such increases could hit low-income households ― which already struggle to afford fresh fruits and vegetables ― particularly hard, especially if accompanied by rumored cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. 

Reduced Availability Of Some Foods — Not Just Avocados

If a Mexican import tax coupled with NAFTA and TPP disruptions spurs a trade war, certain imported fresh produce items could not only become pricier, but also tougher to find altogether, at least temporarily.