Fear of a lack of field workers for apple orchards in the eastern U.S. are an annual event, according to some grower-shippers in the region, and those fears persist this year.
However, events along the U.S.-Mexico border don’t seem to be exacerbating their apprehension this year.
“Harvesting apples is not an automated process, which means preserving the labor force is critical to the long-term success of the industry,” said Julie Bancroft, executive director of the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Apple Marketing Program.
Jim Allen, president, Fishers-based New York Apple Association, said there would be enough workers, although he also said the situation along the border was cause for concern.
“First of all, as a humanitarian issue, what’s going on at the border is absolutely terrible, just a tragedy,” he said.
Calls for immigration reform have been sounded across the produce industry for years, and the current border crisis might push those efforts back, Allen said.
“It certainly is not going to help the U.S. government to get off their you-know-what and solve the immigration issue that faces the ag industry,” he said.
In fact, the events along the Rio Grande will only serve to polarize the population over the immigration issue, and Congress certainly won’t address reform in an election year, Allen said.
“So, once again, the personal objectives of Congress take over their responsibilities of running the country, and we’re looking nationally at having one of the largest apple crops we’ve had in years,” Allen said.
That leaves a big question mark hanging over the apple harvest, Allen said.
“One of the bigger concerns, the biggest risk out there is will we be able to harvest the crop,” he said.
The political component of the issue is perhaps its most nettlesome, said Jeff Crist, president of Walden, N.Y.-based Crist Bros. Orchards Inc.
“I think the first part of the question is the same old story, where our people in Washington, D.C., are having just a next-to-impossible time to come to consensus and resolve the immigration issue and supply us with a reliable workforce through a somewhat friendly guestworker program,” Crist said.
The border-security issue certainly is a legitimate concern, Crist said.
“In fairness, it should be addressed on a more comprehensive basis,” he said.
For the moment, Allen said, the labor situation in New York was stable, although he added that nothing would be certain until the harvest started to hit its peak.
“It will be fine until they start doing audits and raids and it really upsets the apple cart, so to speak,” he said.
The immigration issue goes unresolved, season after season, even though growers and shippers make use of the limited tools available to them to access a legalized workforce, Allen said.
“We’ve be been working on AgJOBS and immigration for 12 years, and every year, it’s the same old same old,” he said.” One of these days, people will walk into the stores and there’s no lettuce and cabbage and people will realize that.”
Lee Peters, vice president of sales and marketing with Wolcott, N.Y.-based grower-shipper Fowler Bros Inc., said the current crisis had not created any additional angst about the supply of field workers he was expecting.
“We use H-2A labor; to the best of my knowledge, there’s nothing holding us up,” he said.
However, David Benner, general manager of Fairfield, Va.-based El Vista Orchards, said there could be some complications.
“Most recently, I got an e-mail of an article in the state of Washington, that uses a lot of H-2A, they’re saying there’s going to be a two-week delay documenting H-2A workers,” he said.
The system for documenting workers has “obviously failed,” and the apple industry has been working to improve it — with little success — for 20 years, Benner said
“Does that mean these apples are going to go unharvested? No,” he said.
There aren’t any immediately foreseeable problems at Burt, N.Y.-based Sun Orchard Fruit Co., said Tim Mansfield, sales and marketing director.
He said he was not aware of any labor issues for the upcoming season, although “every year, you wonder” what would happen.
“The growers here have a good healthy program working with bringing labor in through the H-2A program, and that seems to be working well,” he said.
Lee Showalter, food safety manager and grower services for Rice Fruit Co., Gardners, Pa., said most growers were reporting adequate supplies of labor, but nobody would know whether there was enough help until the harvest got underway.
“We haven’t encountered difficulties,” he said.
Brenda Briggs, vice president of marketing with Gardners, Pa.-based Rice Fruit Co., agreed.
“It is one of our largest concerns; it has been in recent years and continues to be this year,” she said. “There’s a lot of early-season varieties, so it will be a very tricky management of harvest.”
Henry Chiles, owner of Charlottesville, Va.-based Crown Orchard Fruit Co., described the labor supply with one word:
However, Chiles said he was confident that there would be adequate help this year.
“Luckily, we’ve had people that have worked for us a lot of years,” he said.