Give Us Options

Art Barrientos, vice president of harvesting for Ocean Mist Farms, doesn’t mince words when asked about the potential impact of E-Verify legislation. “It would devastate our business,” he says, shaking his head while looking out on a couple spinach harvesting crews in California’s Salinas Valley. Then he turns to a guest, making eye contact for emphasis: “We’d be out of business.”

H-2A Headache
All grower advocates agree that the only way we’re going to be able to have viable vegetable production in the U.S. — if E-Verify legislation passes — is if there is some sort of guest worker system approved. Technically we already have a guest worker program — H-2A — notes Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association. “It’s expensive and it’s a pain,” he says, “but that’s the only alternative growers have got.”

In Georgia, out of close to 50,000 seasonal farm workers, there are about 7,000 H-2A employees, so they have a fair amount of experience with the program. However, Hall concedes it takes a lot of patience, and it includes mandates that are difficult, expensive — and sometimes maddening — to follow.

For example, Hall tells of a Vidalia onion grower who hired 15 H-2A employees from Mexico who arrived in early April for the mid-April harvest. He only needed 15 such veteran workers to bring in the crop. But because of regulations, if you have any H-2A employees, you have to hire any domestic worker who can physically do the job. The Department of Labor (DOL) then sent him 98 Georgia residents. “According to the regulations, if he had kept the Mexicans, he would have to hire them all — all 98 of them,” says Hall. “So he sent the 15 H-2A people back to Mexico.”

The grower hired 15 of the legal residents the DOL sent him. Of course, unlike the Mexicans, they weren’t used to doing such physical labor in the hot Georgia sun, and not all stayed on. So he hired a few more, and a few more left, and so on until he finally got his crop harvested by late May. So when Hall says H-2A can be a pain, he’s not kidding.

He’s serious about how expensive it can be, too, noting the grower had to pay for the Mexicans’ transportation, both ways, even though they never worked for him. “That’s the ridiculous nature of H-2A,” says Hall. “There’s no common sense.”

Serious talk seeing as how Ocean Mist is no fly-by-night operation. Since 1924, through the Great Depression, labor strikes, wars, floods, and freezes, the American Vegetable Grower Top 100 Grower has been producing spinach, lettuce, broccoli, and its signature crop, artichokes. Barrientos says he has no idea how many of the 1,000 to 1,200 workers on the company’s growing and harvesting crews truly have the legal right to work in the U.S., though he suspects it is less than half. Nationwide, estimates are more on the order of 75% to 85% of farmworkers in the country being here illegally. But it’s important to note that all the workers have presented Ocean Mist with what appear to be legal documents, and if the company questions them, they are liable to be sued for discrimination.

The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Lamar Smith (R-TX), who introduced the E-Verify bill (H.R. 2164), which is titled the Legal Workforce Act, says it’s perfect timing for the legislation because the country has such high unemployment. “Statements that Americans are not willing to do these jobs demean the hardworking Americans who actually do this work on a daily basis,” Smith said at a January hearing. “Citizens and legal immigrants should not be forced to compete with illegal workers for jobs.”

If that’s the case, says Barrientos, where are they? He says that Monterey County has an unemployment rate of about 12%, even higher than the national average. “We haven’t had those 12% of people coming to us looking for work,” he says, adding what any grower with experience knows, that most legal Americans find farm work too physically demanding for the pay level. “But I’d venture to say that even if you could afford it, you could pay $20 to $30 an hour, and I don’t think you could have enough domestic people stick it out.”

Georgia On Their Mind

Still, a lot of the immigration opponents support Smith’s argument, even if it is one most growers find ludicrous. But it hadn’t been thoroughly tested, at least on any scale, until just recently. That’s when the state of Georgia announced the passage of its own E-Verify law. Oddly enough, most growers wouldn’t have even been required to implement the law’s regulations until 2013, says Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association. But when migrant workers got wind of the law shortly after it was signed by the governor May 13, right during the spring harvest, they decided not to take any chances. “One rumor was that they were checking papers at the Georgia border, like we were issuing our own visas,” says Hall. “A lot of crews coming up from Florida said let’s bypass Georgia and just go to South Carolina.”

Hall says they are estimating that 30% to 50% of the workers didn’t show up. “How much was left in the field is hard to say. Prices held up, but it may have been because we had a short crop,” he says with a rueful chuckle. “We were estimating early on a $200 to $300 million loss. In the end, it will probably come closer to $200 million because prices were relatively good.”

It wasn’t for lack of trying that they didn’t get the crops harvested. It’s the nature of the work. Take watermelon harvesting. The men form a chain from field to truck and pitch the 15- to 20-pound melons for eight to 10 hours a day in the hot, humid weather. Hall says growers tried using domestic workers in the field, but they just physically couldn’t hold up. “Generally, they would work two to six hours, and if they made six hours, they didn’t come back the next day,” he says. “We may have 9.5% unemployment, but these people aren’t in shape to do it, and they don’t know what to pick or how to pick it.”

Convicts To The Rescue

Just four days after he signed the law, the governor started getting calls from growers saying that their crew leaders couldn’t get workers to come.

Not Just Farming
Florida grower Tony DiMare says what politicians like Lamar Smith are failing to realize is how intertwined farming is with life in rural America. Passage of E-Verify may preclude the growing of vegetables in many areas of this country where it’s the vital core of the economy. “If (vegetable) farming’s shut down, you’re not only losing a sector of our economy, but all those supplemental businesses that ag supports,” he says. “You shut them down, you’re shutting that whole community down. These impacts are far-reaching. It’s not just agriculture, but all the businesses associated with our industry.”

The Georgia growers were even getting calls from friends in North Carolina saying they had crews that were just sitting around because their crops were still two to three weeks from harvest, and they had nothing to pick yet. So the governor urged the growers to hire some of the 2,000 people who were on probation, and needed a job because state law mandates it. One larger grower took the governor up on his offer. Out of the 30 to 35 probationers he hired, just four or five were left three weeks later.

Hall told of the Georgia experience in a recent webinar sponsored by United Fresh Produce Association on the topic. Also appearing was Tony DiMare, the vice president of the Florida-based The DiMare Company. Like Hall and others, DiMare expects the federal E-Verify legislation to pass out of the Judiciary Committee and move onto the House floor for a vote in September. The mood of the country seems to favor such legislation, he says. “I think we can expect some sort of mandatory E-Verify program on a federal basis,” he says, adding that if the House doesn’t pass it, other states like Georgia probably will. “I would say you’re going to see something in the next year or two.”

DiMare says it’s clear that unless E-Verify legislation is accompanied by some form of guest worker program, U.S. fruit and vegetable growers are going to be in trouble. “We don’t have a viable option. I don’t mean a good option. Or even a bad option. We have no option. There is no fall-back,” he says. “We must have a guest worker program. Let them come and work and then go home.”

Friends In High Places

While Charles Hall and others who’ve worked on the E-Verify issue believe the legislation will in all likelihood be approved by the House, that doesn’t mean it’s too late for growers to become politically active. First, Hall, the executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, doesn’t expect similar smooth sailing for the legislation in the Senate. Second, it never hurts to have friends in high places.
“Most people in ag are not politically active,” he says, which makes such legislation as E-Verify tougher to negotiate. “You need to be on a first-name basis with your congressman.”
 
Besides making a connection with your own representative in Congress, consider becoming involved in politics at the national level. It’s the only way to make a real difference in produce industry priorities. And thanks to United Fresh, it’s easy to do.
 
Each autumn brings United’s Washington Public Policy Conference. This year the event will be held Oct. 3-5 at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill.
For details, go to www.unitedfresh.org.

 

*Reader Feedback: Letter To The Editor*

David,
First let me introduce myself. My name is John Cromwell; I live in Virginia Beach, VA; I am 57 years old; and I have a college degree in agronomy from North Carolina State University. I have been in the produce business and farming on my own since 1979, and for the last 14 years have been in the H-2A program. However, my contract was denied this year for no apparent reason and, as such, this year has been a struggle and the future looks worse, as you know
.
After reading your article in
American Vegetable Grower, I would like to offer some thoughts.The legislation that is being put forth by Lamar Smith to simply put unemployed people to work on the farm is lacking a major concept: The general public in this country has no idea what a farm is nor do they care. We as a society left agriculture after World War II and have never looked back. Food is taken for granted just like electricity. You walk into a dark room and you turn on the lights. You want something to eat, you go to the grocery store. No thought is given to either as it is a certainty.

As such, you cannot take unemployed citizens of this country and put them to work in a job that they have absolutely no interest but, most importantly, they do not understand. Wage is of no consequence as the employee simply is not interested or motivated. It would be like sending me to work with Mr. Smith. Despite my best intentions, I would be of no service to him as I am simply not cut out for the job. We need people to work in the field that know and understand what they are doing. My men would often tell me of a problem with a crop and were always willing to work any time of day as they understood what needed to be done. They were not worried about a text message, they didn’t mind if it was raining, they didn’t have flat tires, doctor appointments, weddings to attend, and all of the other wonderful excuses we have all heard.

When a man the caliber of Mr.Barrientos warns that E-Verify will shut his company down, then somebody better pay attention. What about the meat packing industy? The impact on it will be just as profound. There is going to be no meat to go with our vegetables. What part of “no food produced in the U.S.” does Mr.Smith and his backers not understand?

Respectfully,
John Cromwell

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