New Jersey vegetable growers report adequate labor so far this season, but probable shortages of blueberry pickers are causing widespread concern.
When facing the labor question, there’s a significant gap between short-term and long-term answers, said Tom Sheppard, president of Cedarville, N.J.-based Eastern Fresh Growers Inc.
“As of now, we have enough guys here,” he said. “We’re a little nervous about the future.”
The latest news out of Washington, D.C., is promising, Sheppard said, but it doesn’t mean much until everyone signs on the dotted line.
“It looks good now, but what they do in conferences is different from what passes,” he said. “They have to actually pass it.”
Impact of health care, wage laws
Immigration reform isn’t the only issue in Washington that will affect New Jersey growers’ labor issues, Sheppard said. How the Affordable Care Act is implemented also could impact the labor situation.
As for the upcoming New Jersey referendum on raising the state’s minimum wage, Sheppard said it should have little direct influence on Eastern Fresh.
“With H-2A, we’re already above minimum wage,” he said. “Most of our workers are above minimum wage, so it’s not a terrible problem for us.”
Harvesters who work on a per-piece scale, in particular, are well above minimum wage, he said.
Still, Sheppard said, if the minimum wage will be raised, it should be done at the federal level so states can’t benefit when nearby states raise their minimum wages.
“It makes us less competitive with our neighbors,” Sheppard said.
The prospect of a higher minimum wage in New Jersey has some growers worried, said Ben Casella, field representative for the New Jersey Farm Bureau, Trenton.
One of them is Jamie Graiff, a partner and sales manager of Newfield, N.J.-based Daniel Graiff Farms LLC.
“The minimum wage hike will be a large hit on us,” he said.
Without even considering overtime pay, a higher minimum wage will likely cost Graiff Farms an extra $200,000 per year, Graiff said.
It’s one of the reasons the company is investing in a new wash line for its 15,000-square-foot summer expansion.
“We’re getting a little more automated so we don’t have to rely on so many people.”
Changing face of labor
Cedarville-based Nardelli Bros. Inc. has a core group of workers it can count on year in and year out, president Bill Nardelli said.
“We’ve very fortunate that we have a nucleus of people — second- and third-generation — who make their homes here.”
The workers who come and go, however, are fewer and farther between, Nardelli said.
“The transient who went state to state (harvesting produce), then went back to Mexico. We don’t see them like we did in the past.”
Nardelli is optimistic the labor situation will stabilize in coming years.
“I’m encouraged that Congress is on the right path to getting a good policy enforced,” he said. “We need people who are willing to do the physical labor of so many aspects of business.
“The average person doesn’t realize that the people carrying lumber for housing, cooking in our restaurants and doing the laundry when we stay in a hotel (are immigrants). That’s our work force, and not giving them a path to citizenship would be devastating to our economy.”
As for those who think illegal immigrants are stealing jobs from American citizens, Nardelli has an answer for that.
“We get very few unemployed electricians who want to harvest peppers, or unemployed factory workers who are willing to harvest,” he said.
Sufficient labor available for some
Casella agreed with Sheppard that there appears to be sufficient labor to pick the 2013 Jersey crops.
Graiff also is optimistic for his own farm, but he said for other Jersey growers, it could be a different story.
“We have a lot of guys who are year-round, but I hear there’s definitely a shortage,” he said. “It’ll be interesting when the blueberry guys come in. They need a big work force. I think you could see a huge shortage.”
John Formisano, president of Formisano Farms, Buena, N.J., agreed. One blueberry shipper Formisano knows needs 1,000 to 1,200 workers for harvest but last year got just 800. And this year isn’t looking any better.
“I don’t know what will happen when blueberries start,” he said. “Right now it’s alright. We’re in good shape. I have some men who have worked for me for 40 years, but they’re getting old like me.”
Tim Wetherbee, sales manager for Diamond Blueberry Inc., Hammonton, N.J., which had labor shortages in 2012, said it was impossible to predict what exactly would happen this year.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said. “When I see them in the yard, I’ll feel better. We’re cautiously optimistic.”
The communications revolution has made it more difficult to predict what workers will do, Wetherbee said.
“Every worker has a cell phone now, and they’re in constant contact all the time,” he said. “If they think there’s a better opportunity somewhere else, they’ll go there.”
Good growing weather and pollination thus far this season could bode well, Wetherbee said.
“If you have a good crop, and they can make money, they’ll come.”
Freshwave Fruit & Produce LLC, Vineland, N.J., also is keeping a wary eye on the labor situation this summer, said Skip Consalo, the company’s president.
Blueberries are Freshwave’s top crop, and the company has 35% more acreage this year.
Peach growers, Consalo said, are able to get a pretty good handle on labor, but blueberries require a lot of hands to get picked.
Jersey growers will keep battling it every year until Congress comes up with some kind of immigration reform, Consalo said.