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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Thursday, June 13, 2024

The agricultural labor shortage: The struggle to fill plates across America

How food gets on our plate is often a mere afterthought. We eat three meals a day and munch on late night snacks, but the farmers and agricultural workers providing this food remain completely out of sight. 

We expect food to show up on our local grocery store shelves day after day and week after week, but what would happen if it didn’t? We saw it before with the COVID-19 pandemic, where shelves were wiped clean or filled with off-brand products that couldn’t be replaced for weeks. 

There is a labor shortage, and no one is talking about it. 

We need agricultural workers to perform essential daily tasks crucial to keeping a farm up and running, but with the decrease in help comes a decrease in food available for consumption. 

Prices have risen since 2020, and they don't seem to be dropping any time soon. According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, grocery bills across America are rising at the fastest pace in more than 40 years. 

There has been a 73% decline in self-employed and family farmworkers from 1950 to 2000, according to the National Agriculture Statistical Service’s Farm Labor Survey (NASS FLS). During that same time period, there has also been a 52% decline in the number of farm hands hired. 

Yet, we are not helping the problem. Nearly 40% of all food — equal to nearly 130 billion meals — is wasted in America every year. We Americans must learn to be more sustainable eaters. This can range from being proactive grocery shoppers to starting off with smaller portions on our plates. 

Many Americans are used to having constant access to food, where others are faced with constant food insecurity

Unpredictable weather, unequal work-life balance, high real estate for land, high cost of machinery and the physical demand of the industry are all factors driving potential farmers away. 

Many immigration-centered sectors of the United States Department of Homeland Security also covertly add to this labor shortage. Undocumented immigrants account for nearly half of farm hands, 25% being of Mexican descent. 

Absent immigration reform and harsh citizenship and deportation laws have forced farmers to choose between cutting production and losing crops or hiring undocumented farm hands. The increase in border control enforcement and deportation laws is essentially hurting the American economy.

Immigrants do a lot of good for the U.S. economy by taking on jobs Americans no longer want. Due to lack of consensus, immigration reform goes in circles, causing America’s food production to suffer. 

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Here, farmers run into yet another problem. As the percentage of immigrants with college degrees increases, and as literacy rates improve, opportunities for less labor intensive jobs also increase. Even with an increase in hourly wages, primary farm operators still struggle to retain employees because of other available opportunities.  

This is the struggle today’s farmers are living through. With no one else to turn to, they either take the work upon themselves — making the job even less desirable — or are forced to pay out of pocket for high-end machinery and other supplies. 

This is the story no one tells us as we throw away half of the vegetables on our plate because we simply took too many. While we may get constant reminders from our parents to look for the cheaper options at the grocery store, there is a whole other side to the story a majority of people are unaware of or don’t seem to care about. 

Aware of the crisis at hand, it’s important to move forward by only buying what we know we need. Many Americans take for granted the easy access to food that they’ve been given. Too often, groceries go to waste by sitting in the fridge for too long. To get the most out of the meals we make, we need to start off by appreciating the work that goes into growing the food we are eating every day. 

Charlotte Relac is a sophomore studying Journalism and Mass Communication. Do you agree we are not conscious enough of where our food comes from? Send all comments to

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