Migrant Workers, Part II: How farmers are coping

Julie Sherwood

Farmers don't often speak favorably of a drought. But in upstate New York, farmers say this past summer's dry weather meant fewer vegetables to harvest – which  was good, because there weren't enough workers to pick what usually comes in. That was the result of stepped-up immigration raids, the famers say.

New York has between 500,000 and 1 million unauthorized immigrants, according to Gov. Eliot Spitzer's office. Of the 68,000 jobs available in agriculture annually in New York, more than 70 percent are filled by unauthorized workers, reports Craig J. Regelbrugge, national co-chairman of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform.

Last year in New York, spot-labor shortages caused some apples to go unpicked, the Fishers-based New York Apple Association reported. Those shortages were due to raids and the fear they generated, said Jim Allen, association president.

More than 3 billion apples need to be hand-picked during the 10- to 12-week period that begins in late August, according to the association. It requires some 8,000 temporary workers, and those workers must come from south of the U.S. border because "local workers aren't interested in a temporary job picking apples in an orchard," said Peter Gregg, association spokesman. The work is piecework, which can pay up to $15 an hour, sometimes more.

"This situation is extremely volatile," said Gregg. "In the harvest, we are on thin ice."

The labor shortage "is easily the biggest issue facing production agriculture," said state Farm Bureau President John Lincoln, an East Bloomfield dairy farmer.  

Like other farmers, Maureen Torrey Marshall is trying to reduce the need for workers by changing business practices at her operations across western New York.

"You try to get less dependent on labor," she said. For example, switching from growing labor-intensive vegetables to growing grains means more work can be done by machines.

But machinery isn't a cure-all. While Marshall's farms have added more grains, the operation still depends on growing the vegetables it has thrived on for generations — and these, such as cucumbers and squash, require hand labor. Even vegetables such as green beans, which can be picked by machine, said Marshall, need to be sorted and packed by hand.

"Our American consumers need a picture-perfect product," she said. 

Dale Hemminger, who runs Hemdale Farms and Grains Houses in Seneca Castle, relies on about 15 immigrant workers. That's close to half the workforce needed to maintain the 750-cow dairy operation and 1,500 acres devoted to specialty crops such as cabbage, squash and pumpkins.

Most all the vegetables must be hand-harvested, he said. For example, each head of cabbage, which is sold to be made into coleslaw, must be picked and inspected by hand because machines can't discern the different sizes and condition of individual heads.

Cows, however, don't need so much of the human touch. Hemminger is using four robotic units to handle about a third of the milking. It will  eventually mean a few less laborers than the dozen or so he now employs in his milking operation, he said.

Other farmers have taken a different approach, using an existing law to ensure a legal workforce. Early this year, five vineyards around Seneca Lake sought help through a government program called H2A, which provides temporary work visas to immigrants. The vineyards didn't exactly get what they were hoping for, said John Wagner, vineyard manager for Wagner Vineyards. Instead, they encountered an unbelievable amount of bureaucracy, delays and fewer workers than requested, Wagner told the Corning Leader.

“We applied for 13 workers to arrive in February, and we got eight at the end of April,” he said.

The program is flawed because it only allows immigrants who had never been in the United States to apply, he said.

Wagner said he has heard the complaint that immigrant workers take away jobs from Americans. However, as a fourth-generation farmer, he says the local workforce has dried up.

Census data released this summer shows 225,000 residents left New York between July 2005 and July 2006, according to the Business Council of New York State Inc. Over that same time period, 125,000 legal immigrants came to New York.

Also, farmers say they don't know of anyone in western New York not paying top dollar to immigrant workers. That is often in addition to providing housing and other perks.

Fruit and vegetable farmers pay workers according to how much they pick. Most immigrant workers at Teeple Farms, an orchard in Wayne, Steuben County, make about $12 an hour, said owner John Teeple.  

Hemminger pays a comparable amount. On average, he pays between $8 and $15 an hour for work done during harvest, he said, and between $7.50 and $10 an hour for dairy work.

Teeple said that, in the end, consumers will be the ones who pay for the loss of farms. Prices for food will rise, and more food will be imported from other countries, he said.

"And that increases food-safety risks because we lose control over the quality of the food."

Locally grown produce requires enough hands to bring it in, said Hemminger.

"You take the labor away" and business goes overseas or to Canada, he said. The choice is simple. "We must import the labor — or the food."