Florida vegetable grower Chuck Obern doesn’t expect much change in the tight labor market this year. “I just don’t see anything to show there’s going to be something more positive this year than last year,” says Obern, owner and operator of C&B Farms in Hendry County, Fla. “I’m not a pessimist, I just don’t see the opportunities. The idea is to batten down the hatches, weather the storm and hope it will end someday.”

Workers harvest organic strawberries in WishFarms' Duette, Fla., fields, located about 30 minutessouth of the company's headquarters in PlantCity, Fla. The company also partners with growersin California.

Workers harvest organic strawberries in Wish Farms’ Duette, Fla., fields, located about 30 minutes south of the company’s headquarters in Plant City, Fla. The company also partners with growers in California.
Photos courtesy of Wish Farms.

Growers everywhere are glad the White House and Congress have pledged to focus on immigration reform this year, although few are betting their farms on Washington accomplishing something. Since the E-Verify scares of 2011, growers have developed more creative approaches to find enough labor to inch by.

“At some point in time, Americans are going to have to make a decision whether they import the food they eat or have workers harvest the food they eat,” says Obern. “To me, that sums up the migrant worker problem. Either we buy food the migrants produce in their own country, or if we want to produce food here, we have to import the workers.”

Current climate

In general, growers cited the need for a “more workable” H-2A program, which is costly to implement. While this is a talking point among politicians, whether they will act on it remains to be seen.

Growers pointed to several factors complicating the labor landscape:

  • Geography plays a large role in the availability of migrant labor. Obern says he is usually able to retain about 60 percent of his migrant workforce, but fewer workers are returning because border crossings are expensive.
  • Stronger immigration laws continue to make the labor tight. For example, while many states already have an E-Verify mandate, some are just beginning to feel its impact as it is required for smaller growers.
  • For those migrant workers who stay, the competition has gotten fierce among growers to secure their services. Bidding wars are common.
  • While it is not feasible for all growers at the moment, more and more are investigating H-2A as an option, even though the visa program has inherent costs that are unavoidable.
  • Obamacare is weighing heavily on the minds of growers, as they have not been able to discern whether they would be required to provide health benefits to certain classes of workers.

Western woes

Numerous calls to growers in California and Arizona were turned away because of policies against talking to the media. “Growers don’t want to talk about labor,” says Wendy Fink-Weber, senior communications director for the Western Growers Association.

California’s legislature has protected the country’s largest source of produce from E-Verify, while it is required in Arizona.

“We can have upwards of 450,000 farm laborers at the height of the season per year [in California], and we can only estimate at least 70 percent are undocumented,” she notes.

She expects member growers to experience a 10 to 15 percent shortage in workers and says the association’s legal department is getting an increasing number of calls regarding H-2A.

“The pressure comes when all the crops are ready for harvest at the same time,” Fink-Weber says. “We are definitely very concerned.”

Labor availability varies greatly depending on where a grower is located. For example, those with farms closer to Mexico’s border have workers who migrate daily.

“There is a light at the end of the tunnel,” Fink-Weber says. “The White House and Congress have been talking about immigration. So we see there may be a window of opportunity this spring for something that will legalize these workers.”

Florida-based Wish Farms hopes to expand its operations in California, where it has 300 acres in production. The company’s main crop is strawberries, with blueberries a close second.

Smaller Growers Get E-Verify

Several states have experienced E-Verify on a “rolling basis,” meaning it has been required for larger growers first. For example, growers in North Carolina with 100 to 499 workers had to comply in January, and those with 25 or more will be included on July 1.

“Not everybody is really familiar with what’s going to go on with E-Verify, and a lot of workers are shying away,” says Tracy Pope, president of the North Carolina Vegetable Growers Association and a vegetable grower with 500 acres in Clinton, N.C. Pope uses H-2A for his operation, although he says, “I expect it to be a problem for others.”

States with recent changes to E-Verify requirements include:

  • Georgia: Employers with 10 to 99 employees must use E-Verify starting July 1, 2013.
  • North Carolina: Employers with 100 to 499 employees had to comply starting January 1, 2013; those with 25 to 100 employees must comply beginning July 1, 2013.
  • Tennessee: Employers with six to 199 employees had to participate starting January 1, 2013.

“Our growers don’t usually start getting contacts for harvest crews until March and April,” says Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association. “I hope it doesn’t affect us, but it might. We do have a number of growers looking at going to H-2A for their group.”

“In California, it was pretty challenging out there last summer, and there were weeks we just didn’t get done [harvesting],” says third-generation grower Gary Wishnatzki. “I believe the influx of new immigrants coming in has turned, and there are as many going out as are coming in. Historically, it’s the newcomers willing to do agricultural work. Those who’ve been here a generation or so are not as willing to do agricultural work.”

Kicking H-2A’s tires

“Growers are taking part in H-2A more and more,” says Dan Bremer, president of AgWorksH2 in Lake Park, Ga., where E-Verify will be required of growers with 10 to 99 workers beginning July 1. Bremer helps growers use the federal H-2A and H-2B seasonal guest worker visa programs. He experienced a 15 percent spike in calls in the fall of 2012 from growers looking for help. He does not anticipate labor shortages like those of the past few years.

“The H-2A program, hard as it is, is the only way to ensure legal workers,” Bremer adds.

Most of his calls have been from Georgia, Arkansas and Louisiana, although he is finding increasing interest in Missouri and Washington.

He and other industry members confirm that there’s lots of chatter about a program that would allow those who are here illegally – if they are reputable and without any felonies – to stay. “There’s all kinds of talk about those kinds of things,” Bremer says. “Most farmers can do everything but the housing. You have to have the housing before you can do H-2A. A lot rent hotels. That’s permissible and that works out, but in the long run proper housing is the key.”

While the growers felt the sting of labor shortages in 2011, the owner of one family-owned business says years of using the H-2A program and proactive work with the Georgia Department of Labor helped them meet labor needs in 2012.

They are able to bring in migrant workers 10 months out of the year. They supplement with local workers through the state Department of Labor (DOL).

The grower feels “blessed” and says he will continue his approach to securing workers.

Many growers hold information and training sessions through the DOL to educate potential workers on what is expected of them on the farm.

Growing innovation

Wishnatzki continues to evaluate H-2A, but admits that due to its costly nature, it would be a last resort. His company manages 1,000 acres in Florida and 300 acres in California. He also partners with growers to maintain year-round operations.

“There is definitely a crisis looming, and we’ve been seeing spot shortages [of labor] at critical times,” says Wishnatzki. “In our view, it’s inevitable that there is going to be a crisis at some point in time in the next couple of years. We aren’t at crisis stage yet.”

Wish Farms incurred unexpected costs last year because there weren’t enough workers to help keep up with the maintenance of crops.

“One of the things we’ve done is partner with a neighbor that grows tomatoes near our farm [in Florida]. They do have housing, but it’s not utilized in the winter, so we are lining up crews for winter months,” he explains.

Wish Farms maintains a prominent role supporting the Redlands Christian Migrant Association, which provides child care and early education for children of migrant farm workers and rural, low-income families. They focus their efforts in the Redlands farming area of southern Miami-Dade County and other parts of Florida. They are able to promote Head Start for children and job opportunities for adults through the organization. He also advocates increased grassroots pressure on Congress for immigration reform.

Obern does not use H-2A at his 1,500-acre Florida farm, but focuses on operations to create more efficiency.

“To be competitive, we look at systems management,” he says. “We use software looking for efficiencies in coordination, operational efficiencies. The more organized you are, the more efficient you are, and the better you can maximize work. We look at costs every single day.”

Curt Harler is a freelance writer from Strongsville, Ohio, and a frequent contributor. Jennifer Paire is a freelance writer based in Canton, Ga.