Panel discusses migrant labor at food, fuel and society event

Tuesday, October 12, 2010 | 8:57 p.m. CDT; updated 3:32 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, October 13, 2010

COLUMBIA — We are living in the "age of migration," according to Domingo Martinez.

Martinez, an agricultural economist and director of the Cambio Center, was one of three panelists to speak Wednesday at a session concerning immigration and labor on American farms.

The session, moderated by MU journalism professor Bill Allen in the Fred W. Smith Forum, was part of the Food, Fuel and Society conference held at the Reynolds Journalism Institute.

Martinez pointed to a number of statistics reflecting a sizable shift in the demographics of the United States. Since the year 2000, he said, the population of the United States has increased 9.1 percent, changing the supply of labor. 

“Hispanic people have come here to work,” Martinez said. “And they’ve come here to stay.”

Matt Foulkes, a professor of geography at MU, said that demographic shifts of this proportion have an indelible impact on labor markets.

“Labor markets are structurally changed when immigrants enter them,” Foulkes said. “Once they enter a market, the market is forever altered.”

In terms of the agricultural industry, Foulkes said, this has created a shift in public perception over labor-intensive jobs on the farm. Because some of the physically demanding farm jobs are stigmatized as being “immigrant jobs,” farmers are seeing fewer and fewer “Anglo-Americans” occupying them. This is known as segmented-labor-market theory, Foulkes said.

“Certain jobs become ‘immigrant jobs,’” Foulkes said. “There are stigmas, fair or unfair, attached to those jobs. Then it becomes difficult to get Anglos to take those jobs because they are viewed as low-tier jobs.”

So who will milk the cows? This is the question Jim Dickrell, editor of Dairy Today magazine, posed during his floor time.

“Who will milk the cows as we lose folks from rural areas who are actually willing to go into milking parlors and do this kind of tough labor?” Dickrell said.

Dickrell noted that dairy farms can “mechanize and roboticize” future labor, but this is highly expensive, and manual labor would still be required.

In a concluding message, Martinez emphasized that more social science research is needed to reconcile what Dickrell described as “a whole matrix of complex issues” pertaining to the agricultural labor force in America. If progress can be made, Martinez’s vision comes closer to fruition.  

“We want healthy communities in which everybody can prosper and be a valid citizen,” he said. 

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Ray Shapiro October 12, 2010 | 9:47 p.m.

("“Hispanic people have come here to work,” Martinez said. “And they’ve come here to stay.”)

Until ICE deports...

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