Misguided immigration enforcement policies and political gridlock on comprehensive immigration reform in Congress put U.S. food production and jobs at risk from the continuing crisis in farm labor, fresh produce operators said in news teleconference Sept. 19.
Moderated by Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, Washington, D.C., the teleconference featured several growers who spoke about heir unfilled labor needs and frustration with Washington, D.C. inaction.
“We have been about 500 people short in our harvest crew,” said Ralph Broetje, president, of Broetje Orchards, Prescott, Wash.
Broetje said he employs 1,200 people year-round on the farm and has to find about 800 to 1,000 seasonal workers to harvest the apple crop, he said. Even with extensive advertising, he said it is difficult to find seasonal workers four weeks into the harvest season.
“The enforcement-only immigration policy has just devastated the skilled labor source we have depended on the past 20 to 30 years,” he said.
Broetje said Washington asparagus growers left about 10% of their crop in the field because of worker shortages, he said.
“It is getting worse every year and is going to end up putting some growers out of business if Congress doesn’t step up and do immigration reform,” Broetje said.
Producing on a 12th-generation family farm that has been active since 1803, Maureen Torrey, vice president of marketing, Torrey Farms Inc., Elba, N.Y., said the farm is well situated to serve nearly 40% of the U.S. population, in addition to access to easy access to Eastern export shipping ports.
However, she said labor represents a big negative to the region.
“Currently the demand for our agricultural products is very good, but our labor supply is very short for all sizes of farm operations,” she said. “Help wanted ads are in the paper every day.”
Vegetable growers and dairy farmers will have a hard time filling demand for workers, she said. “No program such as H-2A exists for dairy and the domestic work force doesn’t exist to expand,” she said.
On the other hand, Torrey said Canadian producers are waiting to ship more milk, vegetables and fruit to the U.S. because they have a viable agricultural worker program.
In New York, labor-intensive vegetable crops are being diverted to grain crops, she said.
“It is making an economic impact on our community with the loss of wages and the loss of jobs,” Torrey said.
She said every job on the farm provides three to four other jobs in the community and taking that labor away is hurting towns, schools and hospitals.
“We need to have our Congress in Washington develop a common-sense program for sourcing farm employees or will we see a different face of agriculture here in western New York,” Torrey said.
Craig Regelbrugge, vice president for government relations and research for the American Nursery and Landscape Association and co-chairman of the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform, said U.S. needs not only immigrants for science and technology sectors but also to help harvest crops.
“Congress’ pro-business Republicans should be doing everything in their power to prevent high value U.S. farms from closing and production leaving the U.S.,” he said.
Regelbrugge said the Obama administration was ramping up employer audits without providing a solution to the immigration crisis.
While farmers of grain commodities are benefiting from high prices and global strong demand, many growers of specialty crops face international competition that make them vulnerable to the ongoing shortage of agricultural labor, Regelbrugge said.
He expressed hope that greater involvement of more players in the supply chain will make a difference in the debate.