Grower Takes Labor And Immigration Issues To Congress

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Working For A Living

Those who work the land do so because they love what they do. Growers enjoy watching the seeds they plant, and then nurture, turn into nutritious food that will feed people in their own communities, as well as in areas across the nation.

If it were only that simple. Today, growers not only have to deal with the day-to-day concerns of crop production, they also have to contend with food safety regulations, competition from imports, and the worries of having the necessary workforce to harvest a crop — just to name a few of the issues.

Labor and immigration, in particular, have been at the top of many growers’ lists for some time. AgJOBS — legislation designed to revise the current H-2A worker program and allow undocumented ag workers to gain temporary resident status and eventually earn permanent resident status — didn’t come to fruition. On top of that, it looks like growers will now have to deal with Social Security No-Match letters at some point in the near future (See “Trickle Down Of No-Match”). None of this is music to growers’ ears.

Labor and immigration, says a Texas grower located about 50 miles from the border of Mexico, should not be yet another obstacle for vegetable producers. This grower, J Allen Carnes of Winter Garden Produce in Uvalde, is the president of shipping operations at the farm and is the president of the Texas Vegetable Association.

Trickle Down Of No-Match

At press time, it appears No-Match letters will be sent to employers from the Social Security Administration regarding discrepancies in workers’ Social Security numbers.
There was a lot of speculation, says J Carnes of Winter Garden Produce, that No-Match and the consequential cracking down on illegal immigrants would encourage workers to go home. Instead, Carnes predicts there will be more turnover and workers moving around.

“In specialty agriculture, turnover is not a good thing, and I think people are seeing more of that,” he says. “It is the result of the workforce shrinking.

“No-Match is definitely going to be a big issue if it comes out in its current form,” Carnes continues. “I have heard through the rumor mill that it will be a huge issue.” He adds that there will be a noticeable departure of people from major sectors of low paying jobs. 

Statistics show that about 70% of the ag workforce is undocumented, says Carnes. “We all have our own opinions of what our problems with [worker documents] might be, but there is no way to know because a lot of those documents we don’t even know to question.”

Carnes presented testimony last October on the critical need for immigration reform before the House Agriculture Committee. In that testimony, he let it be known that “sensible workplace enforcement combined with a temporary guestworker program and a realistic way to retain our existing, experienced workers would better secure our borders since fewer people would try to come in illegally.” He went on to say in his testimony that a comprehensive approach “would restore law and order by giving employers incentives and tools to reliably verify an employee’s legal status and avoid undeserved criminalization.”

The bottom line, he told the Ag Committee, is that whatever legislation gets passed has to be something that is workable for everybody.

A Farming Family

Growing up in a farm family, Carnes is no stranger to the labor issue as he follows in his father and his grandfather’s footsteps. His father, Eddy Carnes, started Winter Garden Produce, one of American Vegetable Grower’s Top 100 growers in the Southwest, in 1992. The operation grows and ships cabbage, carrots, onions, broccoli, bell peppers, and cantaloupe. Eddy Carnes’ father, D.C. Carnes, began farming in the area in the 1950s. J came on board with Winter Garden Produce in 1997, after he received a bachelor of business administration from the University of Texas in Austin. Fast forward to today, and J now has two young sons and a daughter that he hopes will someday follow him in the family business.  

Tightening Belts

According to Carnes, the labor situation, in general, has been significantly tighter since the 1986 IRCA (Immigration Reform and Control Act) legislation was signed into law. This act made it illegal for employers to knowingly hire undocumented workers, and it required employers to affirm their employees’ immigration status. IRCA also granted amnesty to undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. before Jan. 1, 1982.

“When numerous people were legalized, and because of the seasonality of ag, a lot of those people left the area,” says Carnes about IRCA.

“I never remember a day when we had more people than we needed,” he continues. “In 1997, I realized that if this is something I am going to do for the rest of my life, a labor force is going to be an issue. We experienced our first critical labor shortage in 2004, and in 2005, it escalated. We got everything harvested in 2005 but it was an issue. There was a change in pay rates that year. If a worker could make more in someone else’s field, then they moved from field to field to get the best rate.”

It was in 2006, however, that Winter Garden Produce experienced its first crop losses due to a lack of labor and the farm was forced to abandon 40 acres of cabbage. The sales value on that field was more than $200,000.

In 2007, Carnes says the farm was two to four days behind in harvesting when a major weather event hit. So thanks to the weather and the labor shortage, a field went unharvested for a loss of $250,00 to $300,000.

Because finding enough workers to harvest crops has been an ongoing challenge for Winter Garden Produce, the farm has scaled back acreage, particularly for its labor-intensive onion crop. In 2007, the farm’s total acreage was a little more than 2,100. For the 2008 growing season, however, Carnes says the total acreage is right around 1,900.

The H-2A Debate

The latest discussion on President Bush’s plan to overhaul the H-2A program hasn’t been too favorable. In fact, Western Growers came out and said the plan doesn’t help streamline anything, and instead of making things easier, the proposed overhaul actually will be more difficult for growers to use.

J Carnes of Winter Garden Produce in Texas agrees the latest proposed update on
H-2A isn’t a long-term solution by any means, and numerous people have many problems with it. He adds, however, that these proposed changes could be something that will raise awareness about the labor issue, in general.
Because his Texas operation is so close to Mexico, Carnes says talk of a commuter plan was started by the Texas Vegetable Association in 2006. It would allow people from Mexico to enter the U.S. and work on a daily or weekly basis and then return home.

“We’ve got legal representation in Washington, DC, and we’ve reached out to California and Arizona, as well,” he says. “Nothing is legal yet. We are working on it and would like to attach it to AgJOBS or any other legislation that will move. The possibilities are there to work with California and Arizona.”

Overall, this area of Texas, known as the Winter Garden growing region, has lost many acres because satellite shipping sheds left, due to a shrinking labor force. The sheds, explains Carnes, were based in other areas, and when harvest ended in one region, they moved to another area where crops were still being produced.

In 2004, the total onion acreage for the growers in the area topped 5,000. Carnes says that number has dwindled to 1,800.

A handful of shippers also have left the area and moved to Mexico. A study from California Senator Dianne Feinstein shows that U.S. farming operations have moved more than 41,000 acres to Mexico, says Carnes. “Every year we are seeing more acreage in Mexico and less in the [Rio Grande] Valley.”

Looking For The Silver Lining

In spite of all the recent bad news, Carnes doesn’t expect a labor shortage this growing season, largely due to the decrease in onion acreage in the area. When all is said and done, however, he remains optimistic and says the U.S. ag industry will be able to weather this storm and stay on its feet.

“Small guys will have to form an alliance,” Carnes predicts. “I think there is a place in the U.S. for the small ag producer. We not only provide the safest produce in the world, we provide high-quality produce at a reasonable price. I fully believe that we will work through these problems, but it is a struggle right now.” 

Rosemary Gordon is editor of American Vegetable Grower, a Meister Media Worldwide publication.

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