Montana State University ag economist featured on CBS Sunday Morning

Montana State University News Service
Diane Charlton is an assistant professor of agricultural economics and economics at Montana State University's College of Agriculture and College of Letters and Science.

BOZEMAN — A Montana State University economist appeared on CBS’s Sunday Morning program recently to discuss the nationwide agricultural labor shortage and the role of immigrant workers in the economy.

Diane Charlton, an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Economics in MSU’s College of Agriculture and College of Letters and Science, studies the economics of agricultural production with a focus on labor and migration. Sunday Morning called on Charlton’s expertise for a segment titled “Invisible People” that aired June 27.

The piece centered on the story of Shay Myers, a farmer in eastern Oregon, who put out a call on social media in April asking the public to harvest $180,000 worth of asparagus from his land, free of charge. The farm laborers who would have been harvesting the crops were held up at the Mexico border due to trouble with their H-2A visas, and Myers preferred to give the 300,000 pounds of produce away rather than have it rot on his fields. Six thousand people answered that call, but the profit from the crop was lost to Myers and his business.

In the segment, Charlton noted that the H-2A visa program, which allows immigrants to come into the U.S. temporarily for agricultural work, hasn’t been updated for years. The program is complex and difficult for employers to navigate, said Charlton.

However, relying on local workers and immigrants, many of whom are unauthorized, to perform seasonal farm work is becoming increasingly more difficult as well, since fewer rural Mexicans are interested in doing farm work. When employers cannot find sufficient workers to harvest their crops, it generates major losses for farmers like Myers.

“It’s not easy for the farmers, it’s not easy for the workers, it’s far from ideal,” said Charlton. “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 and provide a path to citizenship for those who participate in the program. Unfortunately, there have not been better solutions for many decades.”

According to Charlton, the cumbersome nature of the program is only a part of the problem. Rural Mexicans are transitioning out of farm work just as U.S. workers did in the 20th century. Immigrants from Mexico and Central America are primarily seeking opportunities in the non-farm sector, she said. Over the long term, U.S. producers will have to seek out new labor-saving technologies and labor management practices to compete with relatively inexpensive imports of labor-intensive fruits and vegetables.