New Jersey growers face labor concerns

05/26/2011 04:05:00 PM
Andy Nelson

Labor-related concerns continue to weigh on New Jersey grower-shippers.

Diamond Blueberry Inc., Hammonton, N.J., hopes to have enough labor to hand-pick its blueberry crop this summer, said Tim Wetherbee, the company’s sales manager.

Diamond can machine-pick if it has to, Wetherbee said, but that will mean more sorting and more product diverted to processing than the company would like.

“It’s become more difficult the last year or two” to find enough workers, Wetherbee said. “It seems to be an issue for everybody.”

Finding enough qualified workers continues to be a problem that plagues growers of New Jersey fruits and vegetables, said Jerry Frecon, agricultural agent with the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station in Clayton.

“There’s a lot of concern, particularly among the larger growers,” he said.

In particular, Frecon said, growers are concerned about the fate of the federal H-2A program, which provides for foreign nationals for temporary or seasonal agricultural work.

“A significant amount (of growers) use H-2A,” Frecon said. “The paperwork and red tape has increased so much, it’s a real battle.”

But the problem has been much more than just a record-keeping headache for growers, Frecon said.

“A lot of workers have been stopped and investigated,” he said. “There’s a lot of fear out there.”

Growers also are feeling the effects of the current immigration debate where it counts most — in the fields, when it’s time to work.

“I know a lot of growers were concerned this spring, just to find labor for planting,” he said.

If growers are having trouble finding enough planters, think how much trouble they’ll have finding enough pickers, he said.

They’re unlikely to find them among New Jersey residents, Frecon said.

“Unemployment’s high, and people say they want jobs, but they don’t want to work in the fields,” he said.

Ben Casella, field representative for the New Jersey Farm Bureau, Trenton, hasn’t heard of any potential shortages this season, but he agreed with Frecon that labor continues to weigh heavily on growers.

“The immigration issue is always in the minds of growers,” he said. “It’s always a concerned that it get fixed, so growers can have a dependable work force.”



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