May 21, 2012
Workers showing up for vegetable harvests – so far

Will U.S. growers find enough workers to harvest their crops in 2012?

It’s tough to predict, but based on information from a smattering of different crops in different regions, it looks like the labor supply is, or will be, adequate – despite the ever-mounting barriers.

About a dozen states have passed E-Verify laws in one form or another, and there’s the possibility that the federal government will enact a version of its own. E-Verify, which requires all employers to use a computerized system to confirm employees’ eligibility to work in the United States, could be devastating for labor-intensive agriculture, since it is estimated that more than 70 percent of its workforce is ineligible, according to the U.S. Apple Association (USApple).

E-Verify laws enacted in Georgia and Alabama last year might keep workers in Florida again this year, instead of seeing them head north to harvests in other states. Those northern states would be short of workers in that case, said Diane Kurrle, USApple’s vice president for public affairs.

Growers also are dealing with increasing numbers of federal I-9 audits. That tightens the labor supply for everyone, she said.

East

Just the threat of E-Verify hit Georgia hard last year. According to a University of Georgia survey released last October, after the state passed its E-Verify law (but before it went into effect), nearly 80 percent of the surveyed growers were having labor problems. The most affected crops were blueberries, blackberries, bell peppers, squash, cucumbers and watermelon, with a combined loss of $74 million. Across all crops, the loss was estimated at $140 million, or 24 percent of the farm-gate value.

The survey estimated a labor shortage of 5,200 workers – or 40 percent of what was needed. The total financial impact was put at $181 million; extrapolated to the entire state, the total effect was estimated at $391 million, according to Charles Hall, president of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.

As for 2012, the labor pool was looking pretty good in April – but Georgia’s growers were adopting a wait-and-see attitude, Hall said.

Florida’s fruit and vegetable harvests were already starting to wind down by April. In general, the labor supply was “barely adequate,” said Mike Carlton, director of labor relations for the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association.

Labor usually gets tighter for Florida growers by April, as workers start heading north. Most harvests were earlier than normal this year, however, which probably kept more workers around, Carlton said.

The E-Verify laws passed in Alabama and Georgia (and nearly in Florida) last year have affected the flow of workers in and out of the Sunshine State. To alleviate the unpredictability, more growers are hiring laborers through the H-2A program, he said.

Growers in western and northern New York state were still seeing sporadic enforcement of employment and immigration laws in April, all the way from federal I-9 audits to stops by the local sheriff, said Julie Suarez, director of public policy for New York Farm Bureau.

The biggest concern for New York’s growers was that the season was so far ahead of normal. Workers would be needed earlier than ever. Still, growers were expecting enough of them to show up, Suarez said.

To reduce uncertainty, more growers are using the H-2A program, which was working “reasonably smoothly” in April, Suarez said. The state’s fruit and vegetable growers need somewhere between 12,000 and 18,000 seasonal workers to harvest their crops; 4,000 to 5,000 of those are supplied through H-2A, Suarez said.

Larry Eckhardt, owner of Kinderhook Creek Farm on the eastern side of New York, said that if there’s anything approaching an average crop this year, it will be difficult to find enough workers.

The traditional migrant labor pool has dried up over the years, he said.

“They’re just not there anymore,” Eckhardt said. “Either they found more permanent work in another industry, or they went home and stayed there.”

Eckhardt has it easier, in a way, because he doesn’t rely on migrant workers as much as other growers. He’s got a good local workforce in the form of high school and college students, but he’ll still experience labor shortages early and late in the season, when the students are in school.

Migrant workers typically pick up the slack in those periods, but his normal crew of guest workers won’t be showing up this year. Crunch time will come during planting in May and picking in September and October. His family and a handful of full-timers won’t be able to do everything. They’ll need to find other help, he said.

West

There were no real labor shortages for growers around Yuma, Ariz., a major vegetable-producing region that harvests from roughly November to April. Yuma is so close to the Mexican border that finding enough workers usually isn’t a problem. Mexican workers cross the U.S. border – legally – work on Yuma farms for the day, then go home at night, said John Boelts, owner of Desert Premium Farms in Yuma.

Growers further north, however, in California or central Arizona, are having a harder time, Boelts said.
Desert Premium Farms grows about 1,200 acres of vegetables, including seed crops, iceberg, leaf and romaine lettuce. Boelts hires about 10 seasonal workers annually, who work six to nine months per year. The rest of his 22 or so crew members work year round.

Most of Boelts’ workers live in the United States, but his weeding and thinning crews – hired through a labor contractor – usually come from across the border. Their identification gets checked at least once, sometimes two or three times, on the way to the fields. If they were here illegally, they would get caught, Boelts said.

Over the past decade, the Yuma community worked closely with federal officials to gain greater control over illegal immigration in the region. Today, hardly anybody illegal gets through the border in the Yuma sector, Boelts said.

Arizona’s state government passed a controversial immigration law in 2010, which has been challenged by the federal government in court. The U.S. Supreme Court was reviewing the case in April.

Despite getting a lot of people “stirred up,” however, the strict immigration law has not had much of an impact on the ag labor supply in Arizona. Farm workers were already easy targets, Boelts said.

California’s asparagus growers were in the middle of harvest in mid-April. There were some labor shortages early in the season, but growers were managing, said Cherie Watte Angulo, executive director of the California Asparagus Commission.

There were some concerns about the later part of the harvest, and whether or not the work crews would stick around or move on to harvest other crops. The asparagus is all picked by hand, and the industry depends on trained, reliable pickers. Traditionally, the same work crews came back year after year, but that once reliable supply has been eroding, Angulo said.

By Matt Milkovich, Managing Editor





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