Eastern apple grower-shippers ponder immigration reform questions

08/27/2010 08:52:34 PM
Jim Offner

Double-digit unemployment across the U.S. won’t make any difference when it comes to recruiting fieldworkers for Eastern apple orchards, growers say.

“No, it doesn’t make any difference,” said Jack Bream, president of Orrtanna, Pa.-based Bream Orchards.

“If that’s where we’re left to get the work done there, I speculate we’d have trouble existing.”

Local residents just won’t pick apples, regardless of the unemployment situation, said John Rice, president of Gardners, Pa.-based Rice Fruit Co.

“It doesn’t help us, and part of it is packing apples, like picking a lot of crops, is tough work,” he said.

And, he said, it requires a high degree of skill.

“We pay by the piece,” he said.

“Professional pickers can make a lot of money doing it. Generally, people who have never done it before don’t do that well with it.”

And, it’s not permanent work, Rice said.

“Probably, the most important thing about it is it only runs about seven or eight weeks and doesn’t solve the unemployment problem,” he said.

Immigration reform is the solution, Rice said.

“If and when it occurs, we think it will be a great help to us,” Rice said.

“We need some kind of guest worker program that works. H2A has proven too cumbersome for most growers to use. There’s a part of immigration reform that would directly address that.”

That part, he said, is the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act — known as AgJobs.

Proponents say AgJobs provides a “legal, stable labor supply” and ensures fair treatment for workers. The latest version of AgJobs provides steps for workers to earn legalized status and revises existing H-2A rules.

“We’d love to see immigration reform pass with AgJobs provisions,” Rice said.

“In the meantime, we’ve been getting along fairly well, but it’s always an issue for growers like us, because some of the work force we have in the fields, some is legal, some is not. They all have documents, of course, or we couldn’t hire them. But we’d love to have a certified work force that we wouldn’t have to worry about.”

Jim Allen, president of the Fishers-based New York Apple Association, also voiced support for AgJobs.

“We are pushing very hard to get some immigration reform that the AgJobs bill will be at the agricultural portion of immigration reform. We’d love to see AgJobs stand on its own right now, but we think they’re going to tackle the whole thing or they’re not going to tackle anything.”

It’s a frustrating situation, Allen said.

“Every year, it becomes more and more of a challenge for growers to get adequate labor. Increased immigration border control and increased activities by the ICE agents make it tougher and tougher each year to get adequate labor,” he said.

“Every year there seems to be new scenarios where we look for and find the labor, or there are new scenarios that take labor away from us.”

The apple industry is united in pushing for comprehensive immigration reform, said Tim Mansfield, sales and marketing director of Burt, N.Y.-based Sun Orchard Fruit Co.

“U.S. Apple and the different groups that work with the industry are working hard with the legislatures to make sure there’s something in there that makes sense for agriculture,” he said.

“We need to make sure there is a labor supply. When it comes down to it, it’s difficult to find it internally. My parents supplemented their income by working in the orchards. That was 40 years ago.”

But the economy will have to get a lot worse to see that sort of scenario again, Mansfield said.

“It seems like it’s a different world and it will have to get a lot worse for people to really get back involved in the harvest in agriculture,” he said.



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