If Farmers Need Foreign Labor, Something Is Wrong

Drover, a trade publication for the beef industry, recently published an article arguing that immigration enforcement and a booming economy are making it difficult for farmers to find affordable labor. Meanwhile, the Des Moines Register, one of the biggest newspapers in America’s Midwestern farm country, is claiming that “Iowa’s economy depends on its 84,000 immigrant workers — including those here without legal documentation.” If you listened to the agricultural journalists, you’d think we need to declare open borders in order to keep produce, meat and milk flowing to American households. But are any of these claims based on reality?

The honest answer is, “No.” According to  Downsizing the Federal Government, a project of the Cato Institute, Congress “spends more than $20 billion a year on subsidies for farm businesses.”  By way of comparison, the United States spends just under $50 billion on its entire foreign aid budget – which funds everything from health improvement to national security programs. That means a single sector of the U.S. economy is receiving taxpayer funded support that amounts to 40 percent of what we spend building defensive alliances and promoting world peace.

And asking for low-wage foreign workers simply amounts to the agricultural industry demanding another subsidy. That should prompt American taxpayers to ask what is it that farmers are doing wrong? Virtually every other industry manages to engage labor at market wages, and turn a profit, without price supports, market manipulation, import barriers, and government funded insurance.

Farmers will tell you that their industry is special. It involves greater risk than other fields of endeavor. And, after all, we’ve got to eat, and food security is national security. Therefore, they should be given government assistance and allowed to employ whatever workers are necessary to bring in the harvest.

But that’s just effective marketing from the farm lobby. In reality, farming and ranching aren’t any riskier than many other important industries, ranging from the seaborne shipment of goods to building bridges. And as Downsizing the Federal Government notes, “Subsidies discourage farmers from innovating, cutting costs, diversifying their land use, and taking other actions needed to prosper in the competitive economy.”

American workers are not shy about getting their hands dirty. They’ll work farm jobs – and any other jobs – provided that employers pay a fair market wage. The problem with American agriculture is that a rigged system, designed to ensure profits for farmers, keeps anyone from knowing what wages the market will bear. The solution to that problem, however, isn’t to throw open our borders and allow agri-business to exploit cheap foreign labor at the expense of American workers. Instead, we should allow free market competition to bring agriculture into the 21st  Century.

About Author


Matthew J. O’Brien joined the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) in 2016. Matt is responsible for managing FAIR’s research activities. He also writes content for FAIR’s website and publications. Over the past twenty years he has held a wide variety of positions focusing on immigration issues, both in government and in the private sector. Immediately prior to joining FAIR Matt served as the Chief of the National Security Division (NSD) within the Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate (FDNS) at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), where he was responsible for formulating and implementing procedures to protect the legal immigration system from terrorists, foreign intelligence operatives, and other national security threats. He has also held positions as the Chief of the FDNS Policy and Program Development Unit, as the Chief of the FDNS EB-5 Division, as Assistant Chief Counsel with U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement, as a Senior Advisor to the Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman, and as a District Adjudications Officer with the legacy Immigration & Naturalization Service. In addition, Matt has extensive experience as a private bar attorney. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in French from the Johns Hopkins University and a Juris Doctor from the University of Maine School of Law.


  1. avatar
    Veronica M Reimann on

    If the farmers need field hands . Then use the prisoners in federal, stat & city prisons . They can earn their keep Plus depending on their crimes they can earn time off for good behavior, learn about farming & a little money. The sheriff from Arizona will help the farmer on setting up living . Guards can be state, city police & military . Pay them well for this duty. . It used to be done many years ago, Now it is time to do it again. If they run . the punishment must be stiff. like the life execution . Those farms & ranches close to villages, towns, or cities give good students in Jr. H & H.S work release & good pay & a credit for graduation etc.. It would be worth a try

  2. avatar

    I remember when my Uncle got his subsidies for not growing cotton, which was his lifetime occupation since the the 1920’s. He started driving a bus and mowing graveyard and my Aunt , who had never worked outside the home. went to work in a sewing room. Their quality of life deteriorated thereafter until their children could help out. NONE of whom became a farmer And the land where he farmed, with the exception of the single acre he gave to each of his children, lies fallow. to this day. Big Business is getting the bulk of these subsidies. This one of my several disagreements with the Reps. This farce is long overdue for dissolution..

  3. avatar

    Great article :
    No need for illegal immigrants , solution :
    1-Fair market wages ,,
    2-Training programs( agricultural diploma ) for jobs needed ,,Americans a lot would like it.
    3- Strict government rules * American labour first ”
    Other wise cut the government subsidiary .
    4-No government subsidary — high taxation to any farm which give jobs to illegals .

    America First ,, homeland security

    • avatar

      RIGHT. We tax payers support their cheap labor for health care, education, crime, etc. It is not “cheap” labor when you consider the “real cost to our society”. The employer…most likely the corporate farm owner profit. Half hide their money and don’t pay taxes.

  4. avatar

    Agreed, reinstate Bracero project again & use more automation or low level inmates to pick crops vs sitting in jails.
    Have inmates work.

  5. avatar

    Why can’t we reinstate a Bracero program again? It worked great in California agriculture until Cesar Chavez unionized them. This is seasonal work, and the Mexican nationals that came over the border for farm work were able to earn legal wages and go home in the off-season. I can see why it is difficult to find American workers to fill these jobs, but the Braceros filled a real need, and made good money in comparison to the economy in their home country.

  6. avatar

    The crop picking crews are run by syndicates (sort of closed unions). The boss guy comes to the farmer and makes a deal to pick the crop. Farmer accepts or the word goes out and nobody will come to pick the crop. Somebody not part of the closed group gets hired, he will be intimidated, or harassed, or injured, …. if you’re a US citizen you will be told on no uncertain terms that these are Mexican jobs, get the hell out.

  7. avatar

    Trump is doing something with new trade deals, because the problem is we shipped our manufacturing jobs to other countries. We should have shipped the agricultural jobs there and in fact if you look at the stickers on a lot of your produce much comes from outside the country anyway. The things we do really well, crops like corn, soy, and wheat are not really labor intensive when compared to the outputs produced. Everything, plowing, planting, harvesting, are done mechanically.

    A lot of people say that the immigration debate shows the difference between left and right, not that it is always one thought on either side. But generally the left is more about “feelings” than facts. That’s what’s going on with Judge Kavanaugh now. We keep hearing the women “should be believed”. But in the case of Ford, she has named 3 other people, all of whom say they know nothing about it. Even her lifelong friend who she named as being there said she knows nothing about it. The New York Times said that they had gotten wind of the second accuser and contacted several dozen people who failed to support anything about her story, which is why they never published it. Every witness named had either supported Kavanaugh or said they know nothing.

    Most people dismiss Fox as right wing. Hardly. Just watch from 2 to 6 weekdays or after noon on weekends. You might as well be watching MSNBC. Shepard Smith and Arthel Neville are open in their contempt for Trump.

  8. avatar

    A great article with a lot of great points.

    Sounds like the circus is coming to town this week in DC. The fact that as a country we can’t handle a situation like this with the nomination of a Supreme Court justice without turning it into an international spectacle and making ourselves an international laughingstock in the process is really pathetic.

  9. avatar

    I always love reading your informative articles and agree with your concerns. But, in Michigan we cant find people to work anywhere with several thousand jobs avaliable, especially farming where it can be dirty and hard work, most of the younger generation refuse to get their hands dirty, now what about boot camp projects for prisoners? etc. I agree its a problem and they do get a lot of support ie: money etc.

  10. avatar

    Aren’t we all sick to back teeth of hearing that Poor Farmer Brown’s crops will rot in the fields if “Manuel Labor” isn’t allowed to jump the border with impunity? A handful of big AgBiz firms control the bulk of crop production, either directly on land they own or by contract with commercial farmers. Far from being ignorant Country Bumkins as the media would have you believe, these are sophisticated operations. A SIZABLE percentage of the total production of various commodity crops – rice, soybeans, wheat, corn – are grown for export. We’re allowing our topsoil and irreplaceable GROUND WATER to be shipped overseas for short term profit. Modern farming methods consume vast amounts of petroleum fuel and artificial fertilizer synthesized from natural gas. Farm-belt congresscritters justify this on the grounds that it “offsets the trade deficit.” I kid you not.