The United States imports more fruits and vegetables than ever before as a shortage of farm and farm workers persists, according to a report by the New American Economy (NAE).
As the market for fresh fruits and vegetables has grown over the past 30 years, it appears that American consumers are seeing more and more products from outside the country on the shelves. In 2019, the United States imported over 40% of its fresh fruit, a huge jump from 2001, when the country imported just 20% of all fruit. The report found that in addition to bananas, which historically have always come from outside the country, fruits such as raspberries, avocados and pineapples are now mainly imported from other countries. Fresh vegetables don’t fare any better, with the United States importing 16 billion pounds of vegetables in 2019, including 99% of all the asparagus you see on the produce shelves.
This increased dependence on imported fruits and vegetables has an impact on producers, workers and farmland. Over the past two decades, land devoted to growing agricultural products has shrunk by more than six percent, with the largest decline coming from citrus plantations.
Why does the United States keep importing more products rather than increasing production in our own backyard? The report puts forward a few theories.
First, there are fewer independent and family farmers working today than there were in the mid-20th century. The rate of farm workers and farm workers hired has also fallen, and workers are, on average, to get old. In 2019, less than 20% of agricultural workers were under 25 and almost half of workers were 45 or older. This suggests that as farm workers and farm workers get older outside the industry, they are not being replaced by younger workers. Fewer workers means less picking and harvesting, with less product hitting the shelves.
The NAE also notes that labor costs in fruit and vegetable farms are higher than the farm average, which only contributes to staff shortages. Labor represents about a third of the cost of fruit farms and almost a quarter of the costs of market gardening operations. With an aging workforce and fewer young people joining the workforce, NAE economists expect labor costs to continue to rise to attract new people. .
Year after year, the demand for labor continues to grow. Since 2010, the number of H2-A visas issued by the United States has almost tripled, reaching more than 280,000 visas by 2020. These visas allow temporary foreign workers to come to America for up to 10 months and work for an agricultural employer. Farms depend on seasonal labor to help during planting and harvesting, and year after year this demand has increased. The NAE found that the majority of H2-A visa applications clarified that workers would handle apples, blueberries and strawberries, all fruits that require a specific skill set and gentle handling during harvest. Increasing the number of temporary visas and focusing on creating a cohesive workforce would pay off for these farmers.
While imported fruits and vegetables offer benefits to consumers, such as a greater variety of products available year-round and competition for maintaining stable prices, it can be difficult for small farms to compete with the quantity of products. imported into the country every year. The NAE report doesn’t suggest what consumers or producers should do about it, but it seems clear that the next decade will be a turning point for the industry. Will Americans refocus on local produce and eat in season or will global availability and resources prevail?