Labor shortage threatens 2007 fruit, vegetable crops

Alternative crops, including fruits and vegetables now make up more than 45 percent of the total U.S. farm gate output. However, these crops require in excess of 75 percent of the farm labor required by U.S. agriculture.

With the Democratic Party now in control of Congress it is feared by many agricultural leaders that human rights issues will cloud the vision of legislators responsible for writing the 2007 farm bill. The outcome of labor reform in the next two years could determine whether the United States will import labor or import food.

Severe labor shortages in the Southeast in 2006 resulted in vast, but undocumented loss of fruits and vegetables. Only an extended fall harvest season from Virginia to Florida prevented the losses from being catastrophic.

In 2007, the amount of any annual vegetable or fruit crop planted will be directly correlated to the amount the grower believes he or she can harvest, based on labor.

At the recent 21st annual Southeast Fruit and Vegetable Exposition, keynote speaker Maureen Marshall, a New York vegetable grower and chairman of the board of the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, recalled a late summer raid by INA agents that left her wondering whether she was still in America.

“They came to our farm before dawn and kicked in the doors of our labor cottages. They arrested 28 illegal workers and sent the legal ones back inside. Then they filed charges against me for harboring illegal aliens,” she says.

Whether Marshall was singled out for being outspoken on the need for labor reforms will likely never be known. In general, smaller operations, like Torrey Farms, where Marshall is vice-president, have not been targeted by INS for labor inspections. Though not the norm, clearly any farm using illegal workers is susceptible.

On Dec. 12, more than 1,000 Federal agents raided multiple plants owned and operated by Swift and Company. How many illegal workers arrested at the five sites, located in Colorado, Texas, Minnesota, Nebraska and Iowa is not known. Earlier raids of IFCO Systems, a company that builds pallets for agriculture transportation, resulted in arrests of 1,187 illegal workers. In August over 150 illegal workers were arrested in raids in Tallahassee, Fla., Sulphur, Okla., and Hamburg, N.Y.

“Prior to 2006, we could pick and choose labor. Now, we take what we can get and we are still 10 percent short on our labor pool, Marshall says. Last year, we had to choose every day which of our crops was most valuable, harvest those crops, and hope the less valuable crops could wait for harvest,” she adds.

“In New York, our local Farm Credit Association published a statement that says we can expect to lose 900 farms and $200 million in production in 2007 and the first six months of 2008 due to a lack of farm labor,” she says.

Labor Department officials are concerned about a recent survey of U.S. agricultural workers which reported that over half of the 2 to 2.5 million farm workers in the United States are illegal immigrants. An informal poll of vegetable growers indicates the number in the Southeast may be as high as 75 percent. Motty Orian, president of Agri-Labor, puts the number at over 90 percent.

“If the U.S. government doesn't implement a workable farm labor program, and do it quickly, farm labor will be an absolute disaster for American Farmers,” says Orian. His company provides one of several alternatives for Southeastern farmers. “We provide labor, secure all the permits, housing, transportation and the farmer pays a flat per hour fee. The farmer must guarantee the worker at least 30 hours a week of work and must meet other contractual agreements,” Orian explains.

Mac Gibbs, Extension director in Hyde County, N.C., says at least one grower in his county has, or will sign up with Agri-Labor. The labor situation in our part of the country has gotten so bad that growers don't have many options, he notes.

In the long-run some economic analysts say farmers are truly caught between a proverbial rock and hard place. History has shown that in agriculture (where many Mexican guest workers are employed), a pool of cheap workers gives farm owners strong incentives to expand the planting of labor-intensive crops rather than invest in labor-saving equipment and the crops suitable for it.

Farmers are now seeing the short side of a 10-plus year run with glyphosate that allowed them to farm more acres, with less labor. Increasing resistance problems with glyphosate may force a high percentage of farmers in the Southeast to go back to more labor intensive cultivation and spray methods to control weeds.

The governments H-2A program has proven to be a failure, if for no better reason than migrant workers can see no advantage to participating. There are drawbacks to the current H-2A Agricultural Worker program for agriculture, too. The admission process is long and cumbersome. A streamlined process would be beneficial and less costly.

Another concern is the wage rate required to be paid and how it is determined. Only the H-2A agriculture worker program sets the required wage based on the “Adverse Effect Wage Rate” (AEWR). This is a flat rate that is paid across the country and is an average of all workers in a specific industry. All other temporary worker programs use the Prevailing Wage Rate, which is determined state-by-state and region-by-region.

The Prevailing Wage Rate is also based on each individual industry and specific occupation.

In addition, many are concerned they would lose some alien workers during any transition period if some existing workers prove to have documentation that is insufficient.

In North Carolina, Gibbs says the H-2A program would not be workable, even if farmers could find labor through it and afford it. Currently, the H-2A contract costs a grower $902. Workers in H-2A can not leave the contract farm. For example, if a grower is contracted to pick strawberries from April through June, he cannot go to another farm to pick sweet potatoes during that time — even if there are no strawberries to pick.

In addition to the $902, the farmer has to supply housing, transportation and pay at least minimum wage. Combined the fees, housing and transportation cost and minimum wage for three months would be a good income for local labor, but no one is willing to work in the field for any price, Gibbs says.

In vegetable production in the Southeast, having labor at the correct time is the difference in profit and loss. For example, with a 10 acre field of sweet corn, there is a three-day window to harvest. To harvest that 10 acres of sweet corn requires 5-7 people. If the labor is not available in those three days, the farmer's options are gone — no matter how good the crop is.

“The labor crews we had in eastern North Carolina in 2006 were noticeably less efficient than in previous years,” Gibbs says. Typically, migrant labor moves north from Georgia and Florida. Gibbs believes that recent INS pressure to find and prosecute illegal farm workers has influenced the better crews to stay in areas in which they are comfortable INS won't bother them. Being out of work during down time between crops is better for them than risking arrest in new places, Gibbs contends.

Orian says the farm labor problem is likely to get worse because the Republican administration has been reluctant to do anything to fix it. And, the Democrats may be more interested in a hard line approach to the problem, which is sure to make things worse for the individual farmer, he contends.

Regardless of the political party, American fruit and vegetable growers, and to a lesser degree all U.S. agriculture is at risk, unless a workable foreign labor program can be developed.

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