As politicians battle on immigration reform and presidential candidates stake out sides on the issue, growers remain the ones left out of the often heated discussions.
The political debates often portray a black-and-white issue with little gray area and room for compromise.
During early season preparations, Florida grower-shippers began feeling the effects of a potentially smaller labor supply.
Discussion in Florida’s state Legislature on implementing laws similar to ones recently enacted in Alabama and Georgia, combined with the national move to mandate an E-Verify system, could be scaring some workers away.
Sourcing adequate labor remains growers’ top concern.
“The early indications are that labor is not as available as it has been in previous seasons at this time,” Gary Wishnatzki, president and chief executive officer of the Plant City, Fla.-based Wish Farms, said in mid-October as strawberry growers were preparing for their winter harvests.
Plant City-area growers received favorable labor supplies during last year’s winter berry season until the worker pool tightened in mid- to late April when the region’s blueberries and other vegetables started, Wishnatzki said.
One day in early October, the Dundee Citrus Growers Association, Dundee, Fla., hosted a worker orientation and processing day for workers the grower-shipper employs from Mexico.
Buses parked outside a large new Lake Hamilton, Fla., warehouse Dundee constructed to house its gift fruit division.
Statewide Harvesting & Handling LLC, Dundee’s caretaking division, brought three groups of workers into the facility to process each worker’s paperwork.
Lake Hamilton-based Florida Classic Growers, which used to call itself Diversified Citrus Marketing, markets Dundee’s fruit.
Statewide uses biometric fingerprinting scanning and an electronic timekeeping system to verify identification. The scanning registers when a worker begins working in the U.S.
Adam Pate, Statewide’s president, said Dundee processed 102 of the nearly 300 workers it needs to harvest and pack its fruit in less than five hours.
Though he calls the H-2A program difficult, Pate said growers have to use it or they couldn’t harvest their crops. He said Dundee successfully secures new and returning workers through the cumbersome program.
“This is extremely critical we do this,” Pate said.
“There is not enough domestic labor here to do what we need to do.”
After finishing processing, Statewide goes beyond the H-2A program’s requirements and provides its workers a $1,000 cash advance so they can buy groceries and other personal items.
The H-2A program requires participating growers to provide housing and transportation to and from work.
Though Dundee advertises for domestic help, few apply. Last season, 18 non-immigrants applied but all quit.
“We have to advertise locally for local help 70 days before the date of need,” said Bobby Bawcum, Florida Classic’s president.
“Every week, we have two to three apply. But they don’t last more than a day or two. This despite us paying them $7.31-9.50 an hour, which is above the local minimum wage.”
Wishnatzki says it seems ironic growers must endure labor problems.
Depending on the time of the year, workers can average $10-15 an hour and earn decent money on the piece rates growers pay them.
People not used to the grueling work also don’t want to endure the migratory nature of harvesting.
The ones that try aren’t usually that good at it and end up costing growers four to five times more compared to the experienced workers, Wishnatzki said.
Why any industry would have difficulty attracting workers, especially during a moribund U.S. economy that’s produced high unemployment, remains an enigma.
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