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.

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.”

Leave a Reply

Vegetables Stories

VegetablesAnnual Santa Maria Vegetable Meeting To Cover Progressive Plant Growth
August 20, 2014
University of California Cooperative Extension will host annual vegetable meeting focusing on nutrient management, plant growth, weed management, and more. Read More
CitrusBorder Crisis Not Helping Farmers
August 19, 2014
As thousands cross into the U.S. seeking refuge, calls for ag labor reform are lost in the uproar. Read More
Cucurbits24 Sweet Watermelon Varieties [Slideshow]
August 19, 2014
Browse the slideshow below for information on 24 watermelon varieties from the nation’s leading seed breeders and distributors. Read More
FruitsHandheld Produce Quality Meter Debuts At 2014 International Horticultural Congress
August 19, 2014
Researchers to present data measuring dry matter, color, and sugar content of cherries and other product pre- and postharvest. Read More
FruitsEuropean Fruit And Vegetable Growers Hit By Russian Ban Compensated
August 19, 2014
Angry at European Union/United States sanctions over Ukraine, Russia has banned many food imports. Read More
Crop ProtectionBioConsortia Inc. Bolsters Executive Team
August 18, 2014
Industry veterans Christina Huben and Dr. Susan Turner bring experience to plant biotechnology firm. Read More
CitrusU.S. Sugar Buying South Florida Sugar Cane And Vegetable Farm
August 15, 2014
Purported deal worth $100 million to purchase farmland and assets of Knight Management Inc. Read More

The Latest

VegetablesAnnual Santa Maria Vegetable Meeting To Cover Progressi…
August 20, 2014
University of California Cooperative Extension will host annual vegetable meeting focusing on nutrient management, plant growth, weed management, and more. Read More
CitrusBorder Crisis Not Helping Farmers
August 19, 2014
As thousands cross into the U.S. seeking refuge, calls for ag labor reform are lost in the uproar. Read More
FruitsHandheld Produce Quality Meter Debuts At 2014 Internati…
August 19, 2014
Researchers to present data measuring dry matter, color, and sugar content of cherries and other product pre- and postharvest. Read More
FruitsEuropean Fruit And Vegetable Growers Hit By Russian Ban…
August 19, 2014
Angry at European Union/United States sanctions over Ukraine, Russia has banned many food imports. Read More
Crop ProtectionBioConsortia Inc. Bolsters Executive Team
August 18, 2014
Industry veterans Christina Huben and Dr. Susan Turner bring experience to plant biotechnology firm. Read More
CitrusU.S. Sugar Buying South Florida Sugar Cane And Vegetabl…
August 15, 2014
Purported deal worth $100 million to purchase farmland and assets of Knight Management Inc. Read More
CitrusFlorida’s Future Farming Leaders Dig Up Knowledge…
August 15, 2014
Class 3 of FFVA's Emerging Leader Development Program learn a lot from road trip to California's Salinas Valley. Read More
CitrusWater Bond Will Appear On California Ballot
August 14, 2014
Voters will decide if thirsty state will spend $7.5 billion, including $2.7 billion for storage. Read More
CitrusU.S. Fall Weather Outlook Foresees Wild Ride
August 14, 2014
From continued drought in the West, to a possible early Polar Vortex visit in the East, forecasters are predicting an active autumn. Read More
Crop ProtectionCover Crop Solutions Offers New Three-Way Cover Crop Mi…
August 13, 2014
A fast-growing cover crop mix needs 45 to 60 days of growth in warm conditions. Read More
CitrusMiffed By Marketing? You’re Not Alone [Opinion]
August 13, 2014
Properly promoting product involves engaging your target audience to meet their needs. But based on the campaigns dominating airtime, many are missing the mark. Read More
Food SafetyLinkfresh ERP Technology Provides A Comprehensive Trace…
August 12, 2014
ERP technology from Linkfresh is Produce Traceability Initiative compliant, and helps growers streamline their traceability plan from field to fork. Read More
CitrusUpdate On The Farm Bill Implementation
August 11, 2014
A six-month progress report states disaster relief, risk management tools, innovative conservation partnerships, and the research foundation are all moving forward. Read More
FruitsRussia Bans All U.S. Agriculture Products
August 7, 2014
One-year embargo also includes fruits and vegetables from Canada, the European Union, and beyond. Read More
Farm ManagementFlorida Fruit & Vegetable Association Announce Pers…
August 6, 2014
Sonia Tighe and Mike Aerts to take on new staff positions. Read More
CitrusJohn Deere Announces Certified Pre-Owned Equipment Prog…
August 6, 2014
Deere dealers to offer certified used machines that meet stringent quality inspections and requirements.   Read More
VegetablesBob Antle, Founding Member Of Tanimura & Antle, Die…
August 5, 2014
Bob Antle, the patriarch of the Antle family and an innovator in the fresh produce industry, passed away on Aug 3. Read More
GenNext GrowersHow To Create A Smooth Farm Transition From One Generat…
August 4, 2014
The Zittels have plans. Lots of them, in fact. This fourth-generation family farm in Western New York works together — Read More