All Hands on Deck
A look at seasonal labor options
The produce industry in the U.S. depends on workers, who are
mostly immigrants, to plant, harvest and package it's fruits
and vegetables on a timely basis.
Last season's ugly scenes of unharvested crops rotting in fields and trees due to a lack of available labor has highlighted the need all over the country for growers to be able to access a reliable, legal and stable workforce. Georgia growers alone estimate a $140 million loss because of the labor shortage during the 2011 spring and summer harvests.
Years ago Spiral Path Farm near Loysville, Pa., began attracting workers to its farm with bonuses and shared events. PHOTO COURTESY OF SPIRAL PATH FARM.
Although farm labor has been tightening for at least several years, grower after grower has lamented the impact the H-2A program and various E-Verify programs have had on production this past season.
Child labor regulations proposed September 2, 2011, have stirred additional dissension. Final rules will be published after the analysis of comments, clearances and review processes are completed.
Put simply, the H-2A program allows employers to admit foreign workers on a temporary basis for agricultural work. Also in broad terms, a chorus of agricultural employers say the program is costly and unworkable.
E-Verify is an Internet-based system that allows employers to determine the eligibility of their employees to work in the U.S. There is some speculation that the federal government's program, currently voluntary, could become mandatory. Although the requirements vary, 17 states presently have some form of E-Verify. Growers in many areas have experienced hardships because even legal migrants feared both existing and potential immigration restrictions.
Large and small individual growers and groups representing growers have been pressing their state legislatures and the U.S. Congress to act to correct the labor situation. Several bills are in the Senate and the House.
The plight of growers
Homerville, Ga., blueberry grower Connie Horner related her experiences in her October 4, 2011, testimony to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and Border Security. After hiring 67 individuals in 2006 and ultimately receiving nearly 60 mismatch letters from the Social Security Administration, she pursued the H-2A option jointly with another farm larger than her 8-acre operation in 2007 and 2008. The first year, with the workers' wages 60 percent more than the minimum wage, production dropped substantially. In 2008 she brought back the best of those workers and hired a new crew. Again, production suffered. In 2009, due to hailstorm damage, she only needed five additional workers during harvest. Now, without an H-2A contract, on the advice of three Department of Labor (DOL) employees, she called DOL for workers several times a week. The DOL had assured her they could fill farm jobs due to the number of Americans without work. However, the Americans interested in working refused to work outside, and about 80 percent of her blueberries rotted on their bushes.
Horner again tried H-2A in 2010, but without the larger farm, which refused to participate in the program again. She brought back the best 2008 workers. She spent over $12,000 in H-2A non-payroll-related costs for only seven employees. The regulatory, documentation and reporting requirements consumed 14 reams of paper, which translates into 1,000 sheets per employee. Besides those seven workers she brought from Mexico, she was required to send 58 letters offering employment locally. Of these, 25 did not respond and 18 were hired but failed to show up. Of the 13 that were hired and came to work, six worked only three days or less, and one lasted longer than two weeks. None finished the season.
Horner further testified that her 2010 H-2A contract, in spite of all necessary approvals and acceptances, is in danger of being voided. Consequently, even though she paid the agreed-upon contracted rate, a lawsuit may require her to pay 26 percent more in back wages.
She concluded that H-2A was not for her farm, and purchased a harvester to mechanize harvesting. That means replacing most of her blueberry varieties with new, unproven, machine-harvestable ones that will take five to 10 years to reach production levels. Plus, they will require new sorting, grading and packing equipment, which the farm can't afford. In addition, because her farm is certified organic, weeding and other chores will be more problematic without farm labor. She may be compelled to downsize the operation.
Horner pointed out that other Georgia farms suffered because migrant farm labor skipped coming to Georgia out of fear after the state legislature passed the immigration enforcement law.
On September 24, 2010, Virginia apple grower Phil Glaize urged immediate action on immigration reform to protect the future of American agriculture. Also testifying before Congress, Glaize said, "Without a stable labor force we will soon see a day where we rely on foreign countries to feed us, much as we do for oil. Our current immigration system is so badly broken that it is jeopardizing the future of my business and our industry." Glaize operates a 650-acre orchard, a packinghouse and cold storage facility in Winchester.
At that hearing, United Farm Workers (UFW) President Arturo S. Rodriguez and Stephen Colbert of "The Colbert Report" also testified. The UFW's Take Our Jobs campaign had invited citizens and legal residents to replace immigrant field laborers. Since the campaign launched in June 2011, more than 3 million visited the website. Of those, 8,600 expressed an interest in farm work, but only 14 actually took and stayed in the job.
The politicization of the labor situation has caught the produce community between the proverbial rock and a hard place.
Fourth-generation peach and wine grape grower Charley Talbott says, "The produce industry must have a viable, workable guest worker program." In Colorado's plateau region, Talbott Farms in Palisade has grown substantially. Times have surely changed since he was a youngster navigating on stilts to prune fruit trees. Talbott has worked with the Mexican Consulate and has relied on local, H-2A and J1 visa workers for five years, but he has become dismayed with the H-2A program this past year. Some DOL audits, without probable cause, he emphasized, have amounted to unreasonable search and seizure.
Several farmers suggested that rather than harassing and threatening farmers, the government should stop imposing excessive regulations. One grower who requested anonymity reported that he had undergone three DOL audits in 18 months. One insignificant fine in particular was clearly disproportionate to costs incurred by the DOL's pursuit.
When the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association released its October 2011 report on the economic impact of the hardships incurred after the state required E-Verify for many employers, Executive Director Charles Hall said, "Georgia is the poster child for what can happen when mandatory E-Verify and enforcement legislation is passed without an adequate guest worker program." Hall pointed out that field harvest work is skilled labor, the jobs are in the hot sun eight to 10 hours a day, and require lifting, bending and stooping. "It is not something that the average citizen can do," Hall continued, "For agriculture, E-Verify is not a job-creating bill - it is job loss legislation."
Many growers point out that the U.S. workforce in general cannot perform or does not desire the work in most agricultural jobs, and those U.S. workers who can and will are far too few to meet grower needs. At any rate, growers insist that migrant seasonal workers are essential.
Growers have noticed a change in the nation's work ethic and attitude toward farm work. One grower who prefers not to be identified says, "It's a different ball game than in the '50s. I used to hire nine out of 10 workers, now it's one out of 10. They don't want to come in before 9 or 10 in the morning, and they want so much an hour. It's easier for them to collect unemployment."
George Hemmeter operates a farm market and greenhouse with family members in Saginaw, Mich. Regarding working in produce, he stresses, "To me it's a noble thing." But Hemmeter has noticed a marked difference in attitude toward agriculture among many young Americans. "Most want to work in an air-conditioned office," he observes. The increasing demise of high school agriculture classes, he says, may be a factor. Changes have prompted him and other growers to concentrate on fewer crops. In his strawberry, sweet corn and pumpkin production, a group of Mexican brothers with visas work for him in the summer each year, then return and work on their father's Mexican farm during the winter.
Growers use a multitude of tools to cope with the situation. The area, their farm's history and often their management style play a part in attracting and retaining seasonal workers.
Growers who have long-standing relationships with their seasonal workers have an advantage in terms of recruitment and training. Several upstate New York growers who specialize in onion production employ a mix of seasonal Hispanics and local workers during their peak planting and harvesting periods. Morris Sorbello, whose father was an immigrant and entered "the right way" in the 1920s, uses a labor contractor for about a dozen Hispanic workers. Sorbello points out that anybody in food production needs the migrant groups. If our nation loses its ability to produce our own food, Sorbello says, "It's the worst thing that can happen to our economy."
Williams Farms, about 10 miles southwest of Lake Ontario, typically augments their full-time workers with 18 migrant workers during peak harvesting and packing. A 10-year relationship with the crew leader facilitates the process. Steve Williams advises, "Treat these workers the way you would want to be treated, and they give you a very hard day's work. They're good people. They don't get drunk or do drugs." He and his father and brother farm 800 acres of apples, cabbage, onions, potatoes and field corn.
Cory Jacobson grows onions, shallots and garlic nearby. Because his crew returns yearly from Puerto Rico, they are already well-trained and efficient; and since they are U.S. citizens, he has no immigration issues.
Grant Family Farms grows more than 150 vegetable varieties on over 2,000 acres in the foothills of the Colorado Rocky Mountains just south of Wyoming. All production is certified organic. They have 4,500 community supported agriculture (CSA) members. General Manager Scott Wiley reported that Colorado farmers estimated that the labor shortage last season resulted in about one-third of the crops going unharvested.
Along with 30 to 35 permanent, year-round employees, Grant Family Farms has a solid core of about 120 migrants from Mexico's farming regions who return annually. "Farming is in their blood. They perform better," Wiley notes. Although organic production requires more labor, Wiley says the absence of chemical exposure attracts workers. Also, the farm gives financial incentives to work the entire season.
Regarding the H-2A program, Wiley says they are looking at that option. "It's a costly challenge, both monetarily and administratively." He notes the lack of a labor pool within the state.
For organic operations, World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), a network of organic organizations, can direct opportunities for volunteer interns. After training, these could lead to employment. The WWOOF website (www.wwoof.org) provides information.
Melon Acres consists of 2,500 acres in southwestern Indiana, with close to 1,000 acres of watermelon, cantaloupe, sweet corn and asparagus. Abner Horrall and his sons contract with DOL-licensed crew leaders for their hand harvesting and packing. Melanie Ellis, who manages their high tunnel operations, reports that two to three crew leaders handle the training of these migrants, who numbered about 175 this past season. Melon Acres provides several haciendas and three meals a day or complete kitchen facilities. About 25 college students also worked at Melon Acres in 2011. Shorthanded last season, Ellis said they worked longer hours and made adjustments to the operation where possible.
Vegetable growers Art, David and Larry King operate a diverse sustainable farm operation, CSA and farm market about 30 miles from Pittsburgh, Pa. Some migrants from Mexico return each year. Art King has developed a reputation, with college and high school students who liked working with the Kings referring others for summer jobs. They work in the field and at the market.
Sheppard Farm's Cedarville, N.J., vegetable and packing operation, which employed 260 last season, has seasonal workers apply at their farm. With eight camps, all are housed at their farm. Tom Sheppard reports that even though the piecework field crews earn more money, most workers prefer to work in the their new, state-of-the-art, air-conditioned packing facility.
Sheppard has conquered the paperwork to ensure worker legality and avoid hassles. To retain the best workers, at season's end, the Sheppards give each worker one of three letters: One invites the worker to return, another informs the worker how to correct his performance, and one tells the worker not to return.
The crop of the Washington state tree fruit growers demands plenty of workers within a comparatively short time frame. Using H-2A and labor contractors last season proved expensive and inadequate. Growers are planning for next season and are evaluating all possible solutions, such as their Southeast Asian refugee pool and prison work release programs.
Some California tree fruit growers are converting to tree nuts because production can be more mechanized.
Oklahoma Farm Bureau President Mike Spradling grows pecans on 800 acres. His operation is highly mechanized. Still, he needs workers for some of the hands-on production and says he is fortunate to be close to Tulsa, with its access to Hispanic migrants. Commenting on the mindset of American workers against agriculture, Spradling noted that the situation affects consumer prices.
California's Grimmway Farms does not employ seasonal workers per se, but does have a critical need for workers to follow their crops and packing facilities in various growing areas. Grimmway is the world's largest carrot producer and grows other crops, including citrus. Consequently, planting and harvesting times vary with the crop and area. Director of Human Resources Sara Oliver says Grimmway employs 6,500 daily. Their field workers number about 4,600 and are primarily Hispanic contract labor. "We value our employees," Oliver said. "They are hardworking and pay taxes." She stressed that their labor is skilled, and one must know how to do it, particularly in their labor-intensive organic production, Cal-Organic. "You can't train them in a week," she says.
For 15 years, Western Growers has been attempting to get Congress to recognize a workable program for legal workers. This trade association represents 90 percent of California's fresh fruit, vegetable and nut growers, and 75 percent of those grown in California. This is half the nation's produce. General Counsel Jason Resnick pointed out that the recent Labor Department actions assume there is a pool of willing and eligible workers who want to perform farm labor. Resnick says that isn't the case, and he added that the enforcement is aggressive.
Growers in the West have been coping with the existing migrant workforce, which is constantly in jeopardy, in part due to the drug trade within Mexico. Some are planting less acreage. Growers close to the border can use migrants with papers permitting a daily commute. Western Growers' members can access legal guidance for audits and information on the regulatory issues.
Other grower associations have also been vocal regarding the labor challenges. The preeminent trade association for the produce industry, United Fresh, terms it a labor crisis and reiterates, "Our industry must have the means to secure a stable and legal workforce." Pushing for labor and immigration reform, United says, "A strictly domestic workforce cannot meet the needs of today's produce industry. We must look to guest worker programs to provide essential labor to fill these jobs." Continuing, it explains that the bureaucratic patchwork of conflicting mandates places producers in legal jeopardy despite efforts to comply. Some growers cut production; others have explored production options outside the U.S.
Regarding the Department of Labor's new child labor proposal, United Fresh supports and encourages efforts to ensure that underage youth are not subjected to hazardous work conditions. However, it notes, "We believe the overall regulatory proposal would have a debilitating effect on the ability of young people to learn the basic skills needed to pursue a career in agriculture at a time when the agriculture industry is imperiled by the increasingly advanced age of the average farmer."
The American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) charged that the Labor Department's proposed child labor rule overreaches the department's authority. While echoing United Fresh's commitment to youth safety, the AFBF cited concerns about the proposal's impact on family farms. President Bob Stallman pointed out that families, their partnerships and corporations own 98 percent of the 2 million farms and ranches in the country. He said, "Their right to operate their farms with family members is specifically permitted by Congress. We don't want to see their rights infringed."
AFBF Public Policy Director Paul Schlegel added that virtually all the state farm bureaus have agreed with that position.
The National Farmers Union also supports child safety, but urged the Department of Labor to "look at certain rules that may be overreaching." Specifically, President Roger Johnson suggested clarification of the parental exemption to help ensure family youth are able to continue the tradition of working safely side by side with their family members. Johnson also noted that removing student-learner exemptions might discourage youth from pursuing agriculture careers. He pointed out, "Participation in FFA, 4-H and vocational agriculture classes allows youth to learn how to safely perform agricultural tasks under professional guidance."
The author is a writer-researcher specializing in agriculture. She currently resides in central Pennsylvania.