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Americans are taking the advice to heart—they are eating more fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately for growers, most of the increase in consumption the last decade has been in imported produce—and the domestic specialty crop industry has grown scarcely at all.

That, says a new report, is in large part because of the shortage of labor. Unless Congress passes immigration reform that settles down the seasonal farm labor situation, even more produce consumed by Americans will be foreign-grown.

The report, called “No Longer Home Grown: How labor shortages are increasing America’s reliance on imported fresh produce and slowing U.S economic growth,” was prepared by a consulting firm at the request of two organizations.

The Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform represents more than 300 agricultural organizations working together to pressure Congress for immigration reform. The Partnership for a New American Economy includes more than 500 city mayors and business leaders who share the goal.

The average American household ate 63 more pounds of fresh produce in 2003-2005 than 20 years earlier, the report says, and it’s grown more since then. But the U.S. farm economy has been largely unable to realize the benefits.

From 1998 to 2012, while consumption was growing about 10 percent, U.S. fruit production increased only slightly, and production of fresh vegetables declined.

“America’s broken immigration system has made it particularly difficult for U.S. growers to find the labor they need to harvest their crops and expand production—a reality that has come at a major cost to the U.S. economy and American job creation,” the report says.

Among the key points the report makes:

• Just 14.5 percent of the fresh fruit Americans purchased from 1998-2000 was imported; by 2010-2012, 25.8 percent.
• Between 1998-2000 and 2010-2012, the amount of fresh produce consumed by Americans grew by 10.5 percent; the amount produced by U.S. growers rose by only 1.4 percent. Fruit growers fared better than vegetable growers, where U.S. production actually declined.
• Had U.S. fresh fruit and vegetable growers been able to maintain the domestic market share they had held from 1998-2000, in 2012 they would have seen an estimated $4.9 billion in additional farm income; related jobs would have increased by 89,300. The increase in production necessary to stave off a growing reliance on imports would also have raised U.S. gross domestic product by almost $12.4 billion that year.
• Labor challenges faced by U.S. farmers and the inadequacies of the H-2A visa program are a key reason American farmers have been unable to maintain their share of the domestic market.

Case in point

The report buttresses its assertions by case studies and the testimony of farmers like Fred Leitz, a Sodus, Michigan, fruit and vegetable grower who farms 650 acres. In 2012, the farm began having trouble finding enough labor. He was able to find only 180 of the 240 seasonal workers he would normally hire to pick tomatoes, cucumbers, cantaloupe, and apples.

Last year, the situation worsened, and he left a third of his tomato crop in the field.

For this year, he said, he plans to cut his specialty crop acreage by 20 percent and shift land to field crop production, which needs little labor.

Bruce Allen, a fruit grower and packer in Yakima, Washington, said labor availability is a great concern for most Washington growers and a limiting factor in increasing their plantings. Although some growers have been successfully using the H-2A guest-worker program, they see it as a short-term solution and are nervous about planting perennial crops like tree fruits, not knowing if labor will be available for the next ten years.

“Orchards are a long-term investment,” he said. “Everybody would be more comfortable if there was a more permanent solution.”

Kirk Mayer, manager of the Washington Growers Clearing House Association, which represents 2,000 orchardists in Washington State, said a shortage of labor is one of the main reasons growers cite for quitting fruit growing and selling their orchards for housing developments.

Other reasons include the increasingly complex food safety regulations and the uncertainties about the costs of complying with the Affordable Care Act.

Labor’s share of the total cost of fruit production is 48 percent, the report says, while labor’s share of growing corn, wheat, or soybeans is less than 10 percent.

There is huge variability among the various fruits, however. For apples, the share of crop that was imported changed very little over the first decade of the twenty-first century.

Fewer cherries were imported, a few more grapes were imported, and pear imports as a percentage fell. Peach and nectarine import levels stayed about the same, while plum imports increased, and blueberry imports’ share increased from about a third to about a half.

Between the two benchmark periods compared in the study, U.S. fruit and vegetable growers faced a labor shortage estimated at 80,000 farm laborers.

“Examining wage data for farm laborers in recent years provides clear and convincing evidence that this drop in employment is indeed due to a major shortage of available labor,” the report said.

Rising wages

Another piece of evidence of the labor shortage shows up in wages. From 2000 to 2013, the average wage paid to farmworkers in the U.S. increased substantially faster than the median wage paid to full-time high-school graduates in the country overall, the report says.

In fact, since 2000 the average wage paid to farmworkers has increased faster than the salaries of college graduates at the top 10 percent of the wage distribution, a group whose skills were in particularly high demand.

“If the 80,000-person decrease in employed farmworkers was due to factors other than a labor shortage—like increased crop mechanization—we would expect wages to be traveling in the opposite direction,” the report said.

The 31-page report was written by ­Stephen Bronars, a Washington, D.C.-based senior economist at Welch Consulting.

Read the full report. •