Several states have followed Arizona’s example in passing laws that allow police to verify a person’s immigration status during a routine stop.
Whether the Arizona statute, or similar laws passed in Georgia, Alabama and other states withstand judicial scrutiny, it’s sending some chilly winds through Eastern apple country.
“It’s obviously becoming more dire,” said Brian Nicholson, president of Geneva, N.Y.-based Red Jacket Orchards.
He declined to elaborate on the migrant worker issue, but he said local help wasn’t forthcoming — even with a national unemployment rate higher than 9%.
“We put an ad in when labor got tight and got 20 local kids to show up,” Nicholson said.
“They were all good kids who wanted to work on a farm. In less than a week, I had half of them left. We’re down to two or three now.”
David Benner, general manager of Fairfield, Pa.-based El Vista Orchards, said laws targeting illegal immigrants have spooked some would-be laborers.
“We’re all kind of nervously paying attention to what’s going on around the country,” he said.
“I mean, there are different states doing a lot of enforcement regulations. Our industry, meaning agriculture, and landscaping and some other industries that use seasonal labor, have been working together through U.S. Apple and the National Council of Agriculture Employers, trying to hook government to come up with a plan where we can document some of these workers that are floating around. They’re never in one place long enough to have a permanent address and have not taken the time.”
Unemployment statistics are moot where finding labor to work in apple orchards is concerned, said Jim Allen, president of the Fishers-based New York Apple Association.
“We could be at 20% unemployment rates, and it would not provide any more farm labor to our industry,” he said.
“I guess our folks, our people, our neighbors are not willing or used to having to go out and bend over and pick apples,” Allen said.
“It just doesn’t happen.”
“The problem is that the work that’s involved in harvesting a crop of apples is very hard, very physical and it’s skilled labor,” said John Rice, president of Gardners, Pa.-based Rice Fruit Co.
The labor problem has not changed for apple growers, regardless of the economic conditions, said John Teeple, owner of Wolcott, N.Y.-based Teeple Farms.
“When there was full employment in the U.S. we had labor issues. They haven’t changed any. It’s a different person that we’re looking for. Here in New York, especially, we estimate we need 8,000 people to harvest the apple crop, and we need them for eight weeks. That’s just to harvest. It’s not all the other things.”
“We just don’t have people available to pick the apples, period. We need to bring people in.”
Federal programs such as H-2A, which enables growers to hire temporary workers, are beneficial, but some growers said even that goes only so far to alleviate the labor problem.
“Labor isn’t hard for me to obtain, because we’re part of the H-2A program, but the H-2A program is getting harder and harder for my organization to deal with,” said Doug Minard, owner of Clintondale, N.Y.-based W.G. Minard & Sons Inc.
H-2A is inefficient, Benner said.
“H-2A is somewhere less than 10% of the workers. They’re overrun as it is, and if the federal government were to charge them to document the (rest), they couldn’t handle it. It’s so out of balance,” he said.
Growers say they don’t expect any Congressional action on immigration in the immediate future.