I was shopping for strawberries last night in a local grocery store. Unlike most people eyeing up the best berries in each clamshell to put in his or her cart, I know exactly how the strawberries were picked and how they found their way to the store.
I also know what would happen if the harvest labor wasn’t there to pick my favorite food.
As I was working on this month’s cover story, I talked with some of my friends who have no direct connection with agriculture. They know people are needed to pick the produce they buy at the store, but, no surprise, most were completely unaware of just how difficult it is to secure ag labor. Like most Americans, I think they also didn’t really have an understanding of what ag workers contribute beyond the fruit they harvest.
I heard from a grower once who told me a similar story. Many neighbors in his small town didn’t seem to recognize the value his workers brought to the community. It took some advance arrangements with the bank, but one week he paid all of his laborers in $1 coins. The influx of $1 coins spent at stores and restaurants around town started a dialogue and made it pretty clear that these workers were an important contributor to the local economy.
That’s the intriguing part of this whole labor conversation: while all of us in the industry understand comprehensive immigration reform is necessary, and ag labor needs to be a focus, most people outside of agriculture are unaware of just how much of a ripple effect each harvest laborer has on the community as a whole and just how much of an impact each farm has on the local economy of the communities you live in.
Which brings me back to that clamshell of strawberries. Not only did someone pick the berries, but someone drove a tractor with the picked fruit back to a packinghouse. There, more people helped get the berries prepped and packaged before being shipped to the store where someone processed the shipment and put the berries out on the display, where I bought them.
Now imagine if that farm had to close because there were no workers to harvest the crop.
“It would be the same effect as a factory shuttered overnight,” Diane Kurrle, Senior Vice President of the U.S. Apple Association, says, pointing out that without harvesters bringing in a crop, a lot more people on the farm are out of work as well. “On average, it’s about three jobs that every harvest job supports,” she says.
Not to mention the lost economy from farm equipment purchases, loans, and the crops harvested, etc.
As you speak with those outside of ag in your community, be sure to stress the ripple effect the seasonal agricultural workers have in each and every community. While many of your neighbors may think immigration reform and ag labor reform may not impact them directly, explain the reach each of the 1.5 million seasonal workers has in the U.S. economy.
The ripple effect isn’t hard to miss.