With a backdrop of persistent labor shortages for some Midwest growers, hopes for comprehensive immigration reform may have a new life as talk of war in the Middle East wanes.
Still, the job won’t be easy, according to the the National Council of Agricultural Employers.
“We were all really concerned we lost a week or two on Syria, but we still have got the debt ceiling (to deal with) and the farm bill has to be done,” said Frank Gasperini, executive vice president of the NCAE. “There is a lot going on, and it is going to be awfully hard to get a whole lot of attention on this.”
Gasperini said some believe there will be a window for immigration reform in December and then again in February and March.
The importance of a bipartisan fix remains critical for growers, he said, though some have suggested trying to work with House Republicans on a plan.
“We need a bipartisan fix, or it is not going to pass the House and the Senate,” he said.
Pressure is on House Republican leaders to bring something to the floor that can be passed, sent to conference with the Senate’s version and result in a bill that President Obama can sign.
Gasperini said labor shortages have been more severe this year, particularly in the Midwest.
“Virtually every grower I have talked to in Michigan has left crops rotting in the field,” he said.
Growers have had to choose which of their crops to pick and which crops to leave in the field based on ease of harvest and market conditions.
One western Michigan grower told Gasperini he has labor shortages of 40% to 50% of needs.
Labor shortfalls for many Michigan growers have averaged about 10%, with some individual growers reporting as much as a 50% shortage of workers, said Craig Anderson, manager of Michigan Farm Bureau’s Agricultural Labor and Safety Services Department.
Anderson said asparagus growers estimate they lost between 1 million to 2 million pounds of asparagus because of a lack of workers. With market prices from 75 cents to $1.50 per pound for asparagus, that’s a significant loss for those growers.
Vegetable growers reported insufficient labor to go over a field more than once. Some blueberry growers switched to mechanical harvesters when they wanted to do more high-value hand harvesting of the fruit, Anderson said.
Because many of the state’s apple growers did not have substantial crops to harvest last year, growers there are concerned their traditional workers would not return the state this year, Gasperini said.
Anderson said apples are now in the forefront of labor demand, with harvest just beginning.
“Many have indicated their (labor) camps are not full,” he said.
Apple growers in Washington state have also reported labor shortages, Gasperini said.
Apart from labor shortages, Gasperini said that immigration enforcement by federal officials has been tough on growers this year.
What’s more, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have seemed to target farmers and agricultural producers who have been vocal about the need for farm labor reform.
For example, Gasperini said a dairy farmer who was quoted in a New York Times story about the need for immigration reform and the prevalence of foreign workers and was then audited by ICE officials about two weeks later.
Agricultural leaders have told administration officials and members of Congress they feel targeted for speaking up for immigration reform.
“(They) keep telling us that we need to speak up and stand up and tell why this is important for agriculture, but every time somebody does ICE shows up and audits them and they lose their workers,” Gasperini said.
During a recent meeting, Gasperini said White House staff told growers to stand up for immigration reform.
“One of my members said, ‘You know what, we can’t afford to stand up because people are almost getting put out of business because they stand up,’”
More and more large fresh produce growers are planting a greater percentage of row crops like corn and soybeans in their operations in order to avoid the need for labor, Gasperini said.
Growers want the administration to lower the priority for enforcement for growers, particularly during the harvest season.
Anderson said some Michigan growers who have used the H-2A guest worker program in the past have pulled out of specialty crop production entirely because of legal actions initiated after they used the program.