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Down on the farm: A shortage of agricultural labor

Down on the farm: A shortage of agricultural labor
Down on the farm: A shortage of agricultural labor 08:14

Something unusual happened a few months ago in an asparagus field on the Oregon-Idaho border: Six thousand people showed up on a Saturday for the chance to pick some free veggies.

"I am a big fan on community, so it's really cool to see so many people out here," said one picker. Children who were out picking were divided on whether they like eating asparagus.

Some volunteers needed the food. Some just wanted to get outside on a spring day. But most had never picked asparagus before, which is where Shay Myers came in. "I hope I'm doing it OK," one woman said to him.

"Well, it looks like you are!" he assured her.

Volunteers picking asparagus at an Oregon farm, after a once-expected labor force was held up at the border.  CBS News

Myers, the farmer whose family owns the field, had been sleepless for days, and getting ever more agitated on TikTok – agitated that he couldn't hire enough people to pick the asparagus crop, some $180,000 worth.

In this April 19 video, he called on people to "understand the ramifications of what's going on at the border, and the lack of labor that we have in this country."

So, instead of throwing the crop away, he gave it away, and created a viral moment. "I put it out there with the idea, I think we thought we'd have 500 or 600 people come," Myers told correspondent Luke Burbank. "We never thought, like, 6,000 wasn't even in the realm of reality."

Myers said that one day cost him and his family their entire asparagus profit for the year. But that's what can happen when you're reliant on an increasingly scarce labor force coming in from Mexico. 

"Farm laborers are so critical to our actual life on a daily basis," he said. "I mean, they're picking the food that's on your dinner table."

That day in April, Shay's workers from Mexico were stuck at the border because of a hold-up with their visas. The H-2A guest worker program gives agricultural workers temporary visas to come from abroad if farmers can't find enough domestic workers. In case you were wondering, Myers' farm pays about $16 an hour for farm work. "It's hard work," he said. "And culturally as a nation, we look down, I think, on field workers and the type of work that's done in field for some reason. And so, it's a catch-22."

Myers – and farmers across America – are grappling with the fact that it's almost impossible to grow fruits and vegetables without farm workers.  

Myers is a third-generation farmer. His grandfather started the farm in eastern Oregon with a single borrowed tractor and some rented farm land after returning from the Korean War. Nearly 50 years later, Owyhee Produce, as the company is now known, runs a state-of-the-art operation. They produced two millions 50-pound bags of onions each year. "Something in the 200-million onion range, I guess, if we're gonna do it on an onion basis," laughed Myers.

Harvested onions awaiting bags.  CBS News

That's a lot of onions! And every single one of those onions is photographed by a $3 million machine, operated by the steady hand of Eliana Ramirez, who does quality control (QC) for the farm. She got her start in the field.

"I remember I was planting onions," she told Burbank, "and one of my friends calls me, and she's like, 'Hey, there's one position open for QC. Do you think you can do it?' And I was like, 'I don't know, because my English is not that good.'"

Myers convinced Ramirez that she could do it, and even gave her time off to complete a college degree while she was working. "They're giving me some opportunities that actually I never had in other jobs," said Ramirez. "They see the qualities that I have before actually discovering about myself."

Myers said he feels it's important that agricultural workers have something to work towards: "As an employer, I want people to have a future. And I gotta know that they have a future. Because it's not very rewarding to do your job weeding in the fields or cutting asparagus or pitching watermelons or whatever they might be doing, and consider or think that they have nowhere to go from there."

Back in 1960, in the documentary "Harvest of Shame," Edward R. Murrow documented the plight of farm workers, whom he called "the forgotten people, the under-protected, the under-educated, the under-clothed, the under-fed. We should like you to meet some of your fellow citizens who harvest the food for the best fed nation on Earth."

Migrant workers followed the harvest. One worker, Mrs. Dobbie, was asked what she wanted most for her children: "Well, I'd like for them to have a career, whatever they'd want to be."

To watch the complete broadcast of 1960's "Harvest of Shame" click on the video player below: 

1960: "Harvest of Shame" by CBS News on YouTube

These days, Murrow's migrant workers have mostly moved up the economic ladder, leaving agriculture to immigrant workers. Some agricultural economists estimate that in order to get Americans to work in the field, farmers would have to pay some 23 dollars an hour.

Burbank asked, "People who are, like, eating their breakfast right now, what are the chances that that vegetable that they're having was picked by somebody who isn't legally documented in this country?"

"Ninety percent, probably," Myers replied. "It's the majority. If it's not an H-2A program, the majority of the people doing the work are likely undocumented."

Diane Charlton, an agricultural economist at Montana State University who has studied immigration and agriculture, said, "I think most people would agree with me that it doesn't make sense that we depend on a workforce who can't even remain here legally. It's not easy for the farmers, it's not easy for the workers. It's far from ideal.

"There is currently a bill in Congress to try to reform the H-2A program to make it easier for producers to use that program, to provide a path to citizenship for those who participate in the program. Unfortunately, there have not been better solutions for many decades," she said.

But reforming H-2A wouldn't actually help undocumented farm workers, which Myers says are the majority, and are not actually legally permitted to work in the United States: "As human beings, how can we argue against them being able to have the same opportunities that we have?"

For Myers – a self-described staunch conservative – one of the first changes he'd make would be to give immigrant, undocumented workers a path to citizenship. "They came here with a dream," he said. "They came here to make a difference for their family. They came here to improve their lives. They put food on everyone's table. They should have a way, a path to citizenship. There's no question that they should have a path to citizenship."

The simple fact is that a lot of the food that we eat in this country is picked by people who are often invisible to us – people like Maricella, whom Burbank caught up with while she was picking asparagus. And she had a message for the people watching this story:

"Well, nothing more than, don't be racist towards us," she said. "If you'd like to come here, we can teach you to cut asparagus. Nothing more. We just want to come here and work."

Farm worker Maricella, with correspondent Luke Burbank.  CBS News

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Story produced by Anthony Laudato. Editor: George Pozderec.

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