Grower Takes Labor And Immigration Issues To Congress

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.

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.�

Leave a Reply

Vegetables Stories
honeybee with varroa mite
Citrus
June 21, 2017
Study Suggests Modern Beekeeping Gives Varroa Mites Ideal Conditions to Spread
Parasite has adapted, thrived with colonies in modern hives. Read More
More Vegetables
June 21, 2017
Variety Specs | Production Tips: Pumpkin ‘Bayhorse Gold’ from Rupp Seeds
Each month, American Vegetable Grower® will offer growing tips on specific varieties, supplied by the breeder or distributor. This month, Read More
Citrus
June 21, 2017
Storm Runoff May Recharge Aquifers and Your Crops
A new study hints that tapping into storm water during dry years does more than increase water table levels. Read More
Cucurbit leaf crumple virus
Cucurbits
June 20, 2017
Take Caution to Curb Cucurbit Leaf Crumple Virus
Learn how to identify, the survival and spread, as well as management methods for this disease. Read More
Up-close shot of a hops plant during the 2016 Florida Ag Expo
Farm Management
June 20, 2017
5 Alternative Crops Florida Farmers Should Consider
Here’s a look at new selections being vetted that might have a place in fields around the Sunshine State. Read More
Apples & Pears
June 19, 2017
Bee-ware: New Resources Released for National Pollinator Week
New videos, webinars available during week-long observance. Read More
Purple nutsedge on tomato plants
Fruits
June 16, 2017
Florida Farmers Fighting to Find Their Way out of the Weeds
For growers in the Sunshine State, the battle with pesky plants out of place never ends. Read More
Illustration of CRISPR-Cas9
Citrus
June 15, 2017
Make Way for Life-Saving Science on Your Farm [opinion]
While nature always finds a way to adapt, science continues to find other ways to cope. Read More
school lunch tray full of Florida-grown blueberries and watermelon
Citrus
June 15, 2017
Florida Farm to School Initiative Makes New Strides
Connecting with local growers, communication, and flexibility are keys to a successful nutrition program. Read More
Business Planning
June 14, 2017
How Ready Pac Went from Near Bankruptcy to Innovation in 3 Years
The company's new CEO, Tony Sarsam, spoke at United Fresh's MKT Expo about how investing in staff, increasing communication, and reaching for the same goal can transform a business. Read More
Harvest CROO Robotics mobile strawberry picking platform
Berries
June 13, 2017
Robotic Strawberry Picker Ramping up for Rollout
Florida-based agtech company officially unveils autonomous mobile platform. Read More
Vegetables
June 13, 2017
Take a Visual Tour of Navajo Agricultural Products Industry (NAPI)
2016 was a devasting year for this New Mexico operation. Instead of going into survival mode, it decided to aggressively persue changes designed to make it stronger. Read More
Sweet Corn
June 13, 2017
45 Years Ago, a Hard Freeze in June Killed an Entire Sweet Corn Crop
While late freezes aren’t uncommon, temps in the teens in mid-June are. That’s what happened to growers 45 years ago Read More
Vegetables
June 12, 2017
Learn More About Navajo Agricultural Products Industry (NAPI)
The focus of American Vegetable Grower's June cover is an unusual operation. For one, the Navajo Nation owns NAPI, and a full third of its production — grown on 55,000 to 77,000 acres — is consumed by its population. Read More
Shinsuke Agehara of UF/IFAS holding an artichoke in the middle of a Central Florida farm plot
More Vegetables
June 12, 2017
Artichokes Emerging as Viable Alternative for Florida Farmers
UF/IFAS study shows the crop, which favors cooler and drier conditions, can be grown in the steamy Sunshine State – with a little help. Read More
The Latest
Citrus
June 22, 2017
Technology Boom Boosting Farm Life to a …
Whether it is human genetics or genetics applied to plants, knowledge is growing at a dizzying pace. Read More
Crop Protection
June 21, 2017
Certis Bolsters Biopesticide Business Po…
Addition of LAM International to allow for expansion of product development. Read More
Crop Protection
June 21, 2017
Early-Season Scouting Tips for Sweet Cor…
Black cutworm and true armyworm have been caught in relatively high numbers across the Midwest, including Michigan. Learn more about determining risk and scouting in your sweet corn plantings. Read More
Citrus
June 21, 2017
Study Suggests Modern Beekeeping Gives V…
Parasite has adapted, thrived with colonies in modern hives. Read More
More Vegetables
June 21, 2017
Variety Specs | Production Tips: Pumpkin…
Each month, American Vegetable Grower® will offer growing tips on specific varieties, supplied by the breeder or distributor. This month, Read More
Citrus
June 21, 2017
Storm Runoff May Recharge Aquifers and Y…
A new study hints that tapping into storm water during dry years does more than increase water table levels. Read More
Farm Management
June 20, 2017
5 Alternative Crops Florida Farmers Shou…
Here’s a look at new selections being vetted that might have a place in fields around the Sunshine State. Read More
Apples & Pears
June 19, 2017
Bee-ware: New Resources Released for Nat…
New videos, webinars available during week-long observance. Read More
Fruits
June 16, 2017
Florida Farmers Fighting to Find Their W…
For growers in the Sunshine State, the battle with pesky plants out of place never ends. Read More
Citrus
June 15, 2017
Make Way for Life-Saving Science on Your…
While nature always finds a way to adapt, science continues to find other ways to cope. Read More
Citrus
June 15, 2017
Florida Farm to School Initiative Makes …
Connecting with local growers, communication, and flexibility are keys to a successful nutrition program. Read More
Business Planning
June 14, 2017
How Ready Pac Went from Near Bankruptcy …
The company's new CEO, Tony Sarsam, spoke at United Fresh's MKT Expo about how investing in staff, increasing communication, and reaching for the same goal can transform a business. Read More
Vegetables
June 13, 2017
Take a Visual Tour of Navajo Agricultura…
2016 was a devasting year for this New Mexico operation. Instead of going into survival mode, it decided to aggressively persue changes designed to make it stronger. Read More
Sweet Corn
June 13, 2017
45 Years Ago, a Hard Freeze in June Kill…
While late freezes aren’t uncommon, temps in the teens in mid-June are. That’s what happened to growers 45 years ago Read More
Vegetables
June 12, 2017
Learn More About Navajo Agricultural Pro…
The focus of American Vegetable Grower's June cover is an unusual operation. For one, the Navajo Nation owns NAPI, and a full third of its production — grown on 55,000 to 77,000 acres — is consumed by its population. Read More
Crop Protection
June 12, 2017
Registration Open for Ag Innovations Con…
Event focuses on microbial control strategies. Read More
Citrus
June 9, 2017
State Budget Cuts Threaten to Take Big B…
Gov. Rick Scott’s proposed plan includes trimming more than $6 million from research and education-based initiatives. Read More
Citrus
June 9, 2017
Agriculture Water Standards Compliance D…
FDA says the agency will extend the compliance dates after feedback from stakeholders. Read More