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GONZALES, Calif. — It looks like a century-old picture of farming in California: a few dozen Mexican men on their knees, plucking radishes from the ground, tying them into bundles. But the crews on Sabor Farms’ radish patch, about a mile south of the Salinas River, represent the cutting edge of change, a revolution in how America pulls food from the land.
For starters, the young men on their knees are working alongside technology unseen even 10 years ago. Crouched behind what looks like a tractor retrofitted with a packing plant, they place bunches of radishes on a conveyor belt within arm’s reach, which carries them through a cold wash and delivers them to be packed into crates and delivered for distribution in a refrigerated truck.
The other change is more subtle, but no less revolutionary. None of the workers are in the United States illegally.
are not coming in the numbers they once did.
There are a variety of reasons: The aging of Mexico’s population slimmed the cohort of potential migrants. Mexico’s relative stability after the financial crises of the 1980s and 1990s reduced the pressures for them to leave, while the collapse of the housing bubble in the United States slashed demand for their work north of the border. Stricter border enforcement by the United States, notably during the Trump administration, has further dented the flow.
the economists Gordon Hanson and Craig McIntosh wrote.
As a consequence, the total population of unauthorized immigrants in the United States peaked in 2007 and has declined slightly since then. California felt it first. From 2010 to 2018, the unauthorized immigrant population in the state declined by some 10 percent, to 2.6 million. And the dwindling flow sharply reduced the supply of young workers to till fields and harvest crops on the cheap.
The state reports that from 2010 to 2020, the average number of workers on California farms declined to 150,000 from 170,000. The number of undocumented immigrant workers declined even faster. The Labor Department’s most recent National Agricultural Workers Survey reports that in 2017 and 2018, unauthorized immigrants accounted for only 36 percent of crop workers hired by California farms. That was down from 66 percent, according to the surveys performed 10 years earlier.
The immigrant work force has also aged. In 2017 and 2018, the average crop worker hired locally on a California farm was 43, according to the survey, eight years older than in the surveys performed from 2007 to 2009. The share of workers under the age of 25 dropped to 7 percent from a quarter.
hire the younger immigrants who kept on coming illegally across the border. (Employers must demand documents proving workers’ eligibility to work, but these are fairly easy to fake.)
That is no longer the case. There are some 35,000 workers on H-2A visas across California, 14 times as many as in 2007. During the harvest they crowd the low-end motels dotting California’s farm towns. A 1,200-bed housing facility exclusive to H-2A workers just opened in Salinas. In King City, some 50 miles south, a former tomato processing shed was retrofitted to house them.
“In the United States we have an aging and settled illegal work force,” said Philip Martin, an expert on farm labor and migration at the University of California, Davis. “The fresh blood are the H-2As.”
Immigrant guest workers are unlikely to fill the labor hole on America’s farms, though. For starters, they are costlier than the largely unauthorized workers they are replacing. The adverse effect wage rate in California this year is $17.51, well above the $15 minimum wage that farmers must pay workers hired locally.
So farmers are also looking elsewhere. “We are living on borrowed time,” saidDave Puglia, president and chief executive of Western Growers, the lobby group for farmers in the West. “I want half the produce harvest mechanized in 10 years. There’s no other solution.”
Produce that is hardy or doesn’t need to look pretty is largely harvested mechanically already, from processed tomatoes and wine grapes to mixed salad greens and tree nuts. Sabor Farms has been using machines to harvest salad mix for decades.
survey by the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology found that about two-thirds of growers of specialty crops like fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts have invested in automation over the last three years. Still, they expect that only about 20 percent of the lettuce, apple and broccoli harvest — and none of the strawberry harvest — will be automated by 2025.
Some crops are unlikely to survive. Acreage devoted to crops like bell peppers, broccoli and fresh tomatoes is declining. And foreign suppliers are picking up much of the slack. Fresh and frozen fruit and vegetable imports almost doubled over the last five years, to $31 billion in 2021.
Consider asparagus, a particularly labor-intensive crop. Only 4,000 acres of it were harvested across the state in 2020, down from 37,000 two decades earlier. The state minimum wage of $15, added to the new requirement to pay overtime after 40 hours a week, is squeezing it further after growers in the Mexican state of Sinaloa — where workers make some $330 a month — increased the asparagus acreage almost threefold over 15 years, to 47,000 acres in 2020.
H-2A workers won’t help fend off the cheaper Mexican asparagus. They are even more expensive than local workers, about half of whom are immigrants from earlier waves that gained legal status; about a third are undocumented. And capital is not rushing in to automate the crop.
“There are no unicorns there,” said Neill Callis, who manages the asparagus packing shed at the Turlock Fruit Company, which grows some 300 acres of asparagus in the San Joaquin Valley east of Salinas. “You can’t seduce a V.C. with the opportunity to solve a $2-per-carton problem for 50 million cartons,” he said.
While Turlock has automated where it can, introducing a German machine to sort, trim and bunch spears in the packing shed, the harvest is still done by hand — hunched workers walk up the rows stabbing at the spears with an 18-inch-long knife.
These days, Mr. Callis said, Turlock is hanging on to the asparagus crop mainly to ensure its labor supply. Providing jobs during the asparagus harvest from February to May helps the farm hang on to its regular workers — 240 in the field and about 180 in the shed it co-owns with another farm — for the critical summer harvest of 3,500 acres of melons.
Losing its source of cheap illegal immigrant workers will change California. Other employers heavily reliant on cheap labor — like builders, landscapers, restaurants and hotels — will have to adjust.
Paradoxically, the changes raking across California’s fields seem to threaten the undocumented local work force farmers once relied on. Ancelmo Zamudio from Chilapa, in Mexico’s state of Guerrero, and José Luis Hernández from Ejutla in Oaxaca crossed into the United States when they were barely in their teens, over 15 years ago. Now they live in Stockton, working mostly on the vineyards in Lodi and Napa.
They were building a life in the United States. They brought their wives with them; had children; hoped that they might be able to legalize their status somehow, perhaps through another shot at immigration reform like the one of 1986.
Things to them look decidedly cloudier. “We used to prune the leaves on the vine with our hands, but they brought in the robots last year,” Mr. Zamudio complained. “They said it was because there were no people.”
Mr. Hernández grumbles about H-2A workers, who earn more even if they have less experience, and don’t have to pay rent or support a family. He worries about rising rents — pushed higher by new arrivals from the Bay Area. The rule compelling farmers to pay overtime after 40 hours of work per week is costing him money, he complains, because farmers slashed overtime and cut his workweek from six days to five.
He worries about the future. “It scares me that they are coming with H-2As and also with robots,” he said. “That’s going to take us down.”
The share of people living in poverty in the United States fell to a record low last year as an enormous government relief effort helped offset the worst economic contraction since the Great Depression.
In the latest and most conclusive evidence that poverty fell because of the aid, the Census Bureau reported on Tuesday that 9.1 percent of Americans were living below the poverty line last year, down from 11.8 percent in 2019. That figure — the lowest since records began in 1967, according to calculations from researchers at Columbia University — is based on a measure that accounts for the impact of government programs. The official measure of poverty, which leaves out some major aid programs, rose to 11.4 percent of the population.
The new data will almost surely feed into a debate in Washington about efforts by President Biden and congressional leaders to enact a more lasting expansion of the safety net that would extend well beyond the pandemic. Democrats’ $3.5 trillion plan, which is still taking shape, could include paid family and medical leave, government-supported child care and a permanent expansion of the Child Tax Credit.
Liberals cited the success of relief programs, which were also highlighted in an Agriculture Department report last week that showed that hunger did not rise in 2020, to argue that such policies ought to be expanded. But conservatives argue that higher federal spending is not needed and would increase the federal debt while discouraging people from working.
difficult to assess changes in health coverage last year. Census estimates conflicted with other government counts, and officials acknowledged problems with data collection during the pandemic.
federal supplement to state unemployment benefits lapsed. She fell behind on bills, setting in motion events that ultimately left her family homeless for two months this year.
New aid programs adopted this year, including the expanded Child Tax Credit, helped Ms. Long, who moved into a new home last month. She said she had noticed improvements in her children, particularly her 5-year-old son.
“It was bad, but it could have been so much worse, and we have come out the other side once again unbroken,” Ms. Long said.
By the government’s official definition, the number of people living in poverty jumped by 3.3 million in 2020, to 37.2 million, among the biggest annual increases on record. But economists have long criticized that definition, which dates to the 1960s, and said it did a particularly poor job of reflecting reality last year.
7.5 million people lost unemployment benefits this month after Congress allowed expansions of the program to lapse.
Jen Dessinger, a photographer who lives in New York City and Los Angeles, said work dried up abruptly at the start of the pandemic. A freelancer, she didn’t qualify for traditional unemployment benefits but eventually received help under a federal program created last year to help people who fell outside the regular system.
Now that program has ended in the middle of another surge in coronavirus cases. Ms. Dessinger said a single positive coronavirus case could shut down a photo shoot. “It’s made it a more desperate situation,” she said.
Democrats on Tuesday said experiences like Ms. Dessinger’s showed both the potential for government aid to protect people from financial ruin, and the need for a more expansive, permanent safety net that can support people in bad and good times.
A White House economist, Jared Bernstein, said on Tuesday that the new poverty data should encourage lawmakers to enact the $3.5 trillion Democratic measure that includes much of Mr. Biden’s economic agenda, which the administration argues will create more and better-paying jobs.
“It’s one thing to temporarily lift people out of poverty — hugely important — but you can’t stop there,” said Mr. Bernstein, a member of Mr. Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers. “We have to make sure that people don’t fall back into poverty after these temporary measures abate.”
“reckless taxing and spending spree.”
Conservative policy experts said that although some expansion of government aid was appropriate during the pandemic, those programs should be wound down, not expanded, as the economy healed.
“Policymakers did a remarkable job last March enacting CARES and other legislation, lending to businesses, providing loan forbearance, expanding the safety net,” Scott Winship, a senior fellow and the director of poverty studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative group, wrote in reaction to the data, referring to an early pandemic aid bill, which included around $2 trillion in spending. “But we should have pivoted to other priorities thereafter.”
Jason DeParle and Margot Sanger-Katz contributed reporting.
The United States Department of Agriculture said on Friday that it will begin making loan forgiveness payments in June to thousands of minority farmers as part of the Biden administration’s $4 billion debt relief program.
The initiative, part of the $1.9 trillion economic relief package that Congress passed in March, has been criticized by white farmers, who claim that it is a form of reverse discrimination, and by banks, which have complained they are losing out on profits from lost interest payments. Delays in implementing the program have frustrated Black farmer organizations, whose members have struggled financially for years and received little help from the Trump administration’s farm bailouts last year.
The U.S.D.A. will initially make debt relief payments for about 13,000 loans that were made directly by the agency to minority farmers. The next phase will apply to the approximately 3,000 loans that were made by banks and guaranteed by the U.S.D.A. That will begin “no later” than 120 days from Friday, the agency said.
“The American Rescue Plan has made it possible for U.S.D.A. to deliver historic debt relief to socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers,” Tom Vilsack, the secretary of agriculture, said in a statement. “U.S.D.A. is recommitting itself to gaining the trust and confidence of America’s farmers and ranchers using a new set of tools provided in the American Rescue Plan to increase opportunity, advance equity and address systemic discrimination in U.S.D.A. programs.”
The U.S.D.A has said that it does not have the authority to cover the banks’ lost interest income.
WASHINGTON — The Biden administration’s efforts to provide $4 billion in debt relief to minority farmers is encountering stiff resistance from banks, which are complaining that the government initiative to pay off the loans of borrowers who have faced decades of financial discrimination will cut into their profits and hurt investors.
The debt relief was approved as part of the $1.9 trillion stimulus package that Congress passed in March and was intended to make amends for the discrimination that Black and other nonwhite farmers have faced from lenders and the United States Department of Agriculture over the years. But no money has yet gone out the door.
Instead, the program has become mired in controversy and lawsuits. In April, white farmers who claim that they are victims of reverse discrimination sued the U.S.D.A. over the initiative.
Now, three of the biggest banking groups — the American Bankers Association, the Independent Community Bankers of America and National Rural Lenders Association — are waging their own fight and complaining about the cost of being repaid early.
They also want other investors who bought the loans in the secondary market to get government money that would make up for whatever losses they might incur from the early payoff.
Bank lobbyists, in letters and virtual meetings, have been asking the Agriculture Department to make changes to the repayment program, a U.S.D.A. official said. They are pressing the U.S.D.A. to simply make the loan payments, rather than wipe out the debt all at once. And they are warning of other repercussions, including long-term damage to the U.S.D.A.’s minority lending program.
In a letter sent last month to Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary, the banks suggested that they might be more reluctant to extend credit if the loans were quickly repaid, leaving minority farmers worse off in the long run. The intimation was viewed as a threat by some organizations that represent Black farmers.
they wrote to Mr. Vilsack in April.
The U.S.D.A. has shown no inclination to reverse course. An agency official said that obliging the banks would put an undue burden on taxpayers and that the law did not allow the agency to pay interest costs or reimburse secondary market investors. The agency hopes to be able to begin the debt relief process in the coming weeks, according to the official, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to comment on the program.
The relief legislation that Congress passed in March provided “sums as may be necessary” from the Treasury Department to help minority farmers and ranchers pay off loans granted or guaranteed by the Agriculture Department. Most of the loans are made directly to farmers, but about 12 percent, or 3,078, are made through lenders and guaranteed by the U.S.D.A.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the loan forgiveness provision would cost $4 billion over a decade.
While America’s banks have flourished in the last century, the number of Black-owned farms has declined sharply since 1920, to less than 40,000 today from about a million. Their demise is the result of industry consolidation as well as onerous loan terms and high foreclosure rates.
Black farmers have been frustrated by the delays and say they are angry that banks are demanding additional money, slowing down the debt relief process.
“Look at the two groups: You have the Black men and women who have gone through racism and discrimination and have lost their land and their livelihood,” said Bill Bridgeforth, a farmer in Alabama who is on the board of the National Black Growers Council. “And then you have the American Bankers Association, which represents the wealthiest folks in the land, and they’re whining about the money they could potentially lose.”
John Boyd Jr., president of the National Black Farmers Association, a nonprofit, said he found it upsetting that the banks said little about years of discriminatory lending practices and instead complained about losing profits.
“They’ve never signed on to a letter or supported us to end discrimination, but they were quick to send a letter to the secretary telling him how troublesome it’s going to be for the banks,” Mr. Boyd said. “They need to think about the trouble they’ve caused not working with Black farmers and the foreclosure process and how troublesome that was for us.”
Mr. Boyd urged Mr. Vilsack not to let the debt relief stall.
“It’s planting season and Black farmers and farmers of color really could use this relief,” Mr. Boyd said.
Cornelius Blanding, executive director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, said that the letter from the banks appeared to be a veiled threat.
“They are prioritizing profits over people,” Mr. Blanding said, expressing concern that the backlash from banks and white farmers could delay the debt relief. “Debt has been a burden on the back of many farmers and especially farmers of color. Them holding this up really prolongs justice.”
Although the government is paying 120 percent of the outstanding loan amounts to cover additional taxes and fees, banks say that unless they get more, they will be on the losing end of the bailout.
The banking industry groups could not offer an estimate of how much additional money they would need to be satisfied. The Agriculture Department said it would cost tens of millions of dollars to meet the banks’ demands.
In the letter to Mr. Vilsack, the bank lobbyists pointed to one large community bank, which they said had a $200 million portfolio of loans to socially disadvantaged farmers that would lose millions of dollars of net income per year if the loans were quickly paid off. They warned that such a move would “undoubtedly reduce the bank’s ability to retain employees.”
The American Bankers Association defended the request, arguing that lenders have been a lifeline to minority farmers. It said that the matter primarily affects the group’s smaller members that have large portfolios of loans from socially disadvantaged borrowers. Representatives for Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup said that the debt relief program had not been on their radar and that they had not been lobbying against it.
“We recognize the need for U.S.D.A. to carry out this act of Congress, and we support the goal of providing financial relief to socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers,” said Sarah Grano, a spokeswoman for the American Bankers Association. “We believe it would be helpful if the U.S.D.A. implemented this one-time action without causing undue financial harm to the very lenders who have been supporting farmers with much-needed credit.”
Danny Creel, the executive director of the National Rural Lenders Association, said he had no comment. An official from the Independent Community Bankers of America said that the group was not currently considering litigation and that it anticipated that the federal government would find a way to accommodate its requests.
Lawmakers who helped craft the relief legislation have expressed little sympathy for the banks and are pressing the agriculture department to get the money out the door.
Senator Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, said: “U.S.D.A. should now take this first step toward addressing the agency’s history of discrimination by quickly implementing the law that Congress passed and moving forward without delay to pay off in full all direct and guaranteed loans of Black farmers and other socially disadvantaged farmers.”
The banks are not the only ones who have been fighting the debt relief initiative. A group of white farmers in Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota and Ohio are suing the Agriculture Department, arguing that offering debt relief on the basis of skin color is discriminatory. America First Legal, a group led by the former Trump administration official Stephen Miller, filed a lawsuit making a similar argument in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas this month.
Mr. Vilsack said at a White House press briefing this month that his department would not be deterred by pushback against its plans to help minority farmers.
“I think I have to take you back 20, 30 years, when we know for a fact that socially disadvantaged producers were discriminated against by the United States Department of Agriculture,” Mr. Vilsack said. “So, the American Rescue Plan’s effort is to begin addressing the cumulative effect of that discrimination in terms of socially disadvantaged producers.”
Representative James E. Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat who played an influential role in helping Mr. Biden secure the party’s presidential nomination, has also been a major voice highlighting the experience of Black farmers and helped drive the stimulus provisions, according to congressional staff aides.
The funding aims to address longstanding problems with discrimination at the Agriculture Department — particularly its refusal to grant farmers of color the same access to capital that helped tide over white farmers during difficult periods in history. Minority farmers have confronted other issues, like a lack of access to legal services that have complicated farm inheritances, and a lack of public investment in rural communities and on reservations, including in the water supply and roads and transportation to get farm products to market.
Those factors led to a substantial loss of land. While the number of farmers in the United States has fallen sharply over the past century as farms mechanized and more people found work in factories and offices, Black farmers suffered disproportionately.
According to Agriculture Department data, in 1920, the United States had 925,708 Black farmers, making up 14 percent of farmers in the country. But by 2017, only 35,470 of the nation’s more than two million farms were run by Black producers, or 1.7 percent.
Joe Patterson, 70, whose family has farmed in the Mississippi Delta for decades, said discriminatory lending had forced many Black farmers around him out of business over the years, and led to some lean times for his own family.
Frequently Asked Questions About the New Stimulus Package
The stimulus payments would be $1,400 for most recipients. Those who are eligible would also receive an identical payment for each of their children. To qualify for the full $1,400, a single person would need an adjusted gross income of $75,000 or below. For heads of household, adjusted gross income would need to be $112,500 or below, and for married couples filing jointly that number would need to be $150,000 or below. To be eligible for a payment, a person must have a Social Security number. .
Buying insurance through the government program known as COBRA would temporarily become a lot cheaper. COBRA, for the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, generally lets someone who loses a job buy coverage via the former employer. But it’s expensive: Under normal circumstances, a person may have to pay at least 102 percent of the cost of the premium. Under the relief bill, the government would pay the entire COBRA premium from April 1 through Sept. 30. A person who qualified for new, employer-based health insurance someplace else before Sept. 30 would lose eligibility for the no-cost coverage. And someone who left a job voluntarily would not be eligible, either.
This credit, which helps working families offset the cost of care for children under 13 and other dependents, would be significantly expanded for a single year. More people would be eligible, and many recipients would get a bigger break. The bill would also make the credit fully refundable, which means you could collect the money as a refund even if your tax bill was zero. “That will be helpful to people at the lower end” of the income scale, said Mark Luscombe, principal federal tax analyst at Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. .
There would be a big one for people who already have debt. You wouldn’t have to pay income taxes on forgiven debt if you qualify for loan forgiveness or cancellation — for example, if you’ve been in an income-driven repayment plan for the requisite number of years, if your school defrauded you or if Congress or the president wipes away $10,000 of debt for large numbers of people. This would be the case for debt forgiven between Jan. 1, 2021, and the end of 2025. .
The bill would provide billions of dollars in rental and utility assistance to people who are struggling and in danger of being evicted from their homes. About $27 billion would go toward emergency rental assistance. The vast majority of it would replenish the so-called Coronavirus Relief Fund, created by the CARES Act and distributed through state, local and tribal governments, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. That’s on top of the $25 billion in assistance provided by the relief package passed in December. To receive financial assistance — which could be used for rent, utilities and other housing expenses — households would have to meet several conditions. Household income could not exceed 80 percent of the area median income, at least one household member must be at risk of homelessness or housing instability, and individuals would have to qualify for unemployment benefits or have experienced financial hardship (directly or indirectly) because of the pandemic. Assistance could be provided for up to 18 months, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Lower-income families that have been unemployed for three months or more would be given priority for assistance. .
“When it all boiled down to it, it was a lack of funds that kept the Black farmers down,” said Mr. Patterson, who spoke by phone from the cab of a tractor he had pulled over to the side of the road. “If we had the same amount of investment that the other farmers had, a lot of Black farmers would still be farming this date.”
He added, “But because they didn’t have those funds, each year would get worse and worse.”
Anthony Daniels, a Democrat in Alabama’s state legislature who serves on the board of One Country Project, a Democratic group focused on rural issues, said that many Black farmers were still suffering from burdensome debt, and that the stimulus provisions would help them pay off loans and related taxes.