WASHINGTON — On more than 10,000 acres of drained swampland in western New York, Maureen Torrey’s family farm grows an assortment of vegetables in the dark, nutrient-rich soil known as “Elba muck.” Like other farms in the area, Torrey Farms Inc. of Elba, N.Y., depends on seasonal labor, mainly undocumented field hands from Mexico, to pick, package and ship its cabbage, cucumbers, squash, green beans and onions throughout the nation.
With the peak harvest season at hand, Torrey’s concerns about a labor shortage are growing. A crackdown on illegal immigration, more job opportunities in Mexico and rising fees charged by smugglers are reducing the number of workers who cross the U.S. border illegally each year to help make up more than 60 percent of U.S. farmworkers.
The American Farm Bureau Federation projects $5 billion to $9 billion in annual produce-industry losses because of the labor shortages, which have become commonplace for farmers such as Torrey, who said there were 10 applicants for every job five years ago.
“In the last year that wasn’t the case,” she said. “We hired anybody that showed up for field work. It’ll be interesting to see how many people we have knocking on the door this year.”
With the cherry harvest under way in south-central Washington state, the Sage Bluff farmworker housing compound in Malaga is only half full, with nowhere near the 270 workers it can accommodate.
“I would say we’re significantly short,” said Jesse Lane, the housing manager for the Washington Growers League, which runs Sage Bluff. “I had a grower contact me who said he only had 20 pickers and he needed over a hundred.”
In California, farmers are reporting labor shortages of 30 percent to 40 percent, said Bryan Little, the director of labor affairs for the California Farm Bureau Federation. He said some cherry growers had left acres unpicked because they didn’t have enough workers.
“Generally, what I hear is that if you need 10 crews to harvest 40 acres of strawberries, you only have seven,” he said. “If you need a crew of 10 people, then you only have six or seven. It varies, depending on where you are in the state.”
The problem is particularly tough for small farms that need work crews for only a few days. Even though 60 percent of hired farm labor works on farms with annual sales of less than $1 million, most field pickers would rather work for weeks or months at a time on larger farms, said Manuel Cunha, the president of the Nisei Farmers League in Fresno, Calif.
“They’re not going to leave their full-time growers to work for a day or two on the small farms, so a lot of fruit isn’t getting picked,” Cunha said. “The shortage is tight and it’s getting tighter.”
Border patrol agents no longer pose the biggest risk for Mexican workers who cross the U.S. border illegally, Cunha said. Drug cartels and human traffickers now prey on illegal immigrants, forcing them to transport drugs and kidnapping their relatives to make sure they comply.
“They are told, ‘You will carry this or you’re gone,’ ” Cunha said. “It’s no more, ‘Would you like to try this?’ ”
Traffickers and smugglers also have entered the labor-contracting industry. They force groups of newly arrived illegal immigrants to work certain jobs against their will and then steal from their paychecks. To avoid them, many undocumented workers simply stay in America after the harvest season.
“Workers won’t go home, and the workers that do go home will not come back because they’re afraid,” Cunha said.
The problems have exacerbated spot shortages of migrant workers all across the nation.
Many say the answer is to overhaul the H-2A federal guest worker program so visiting farmworkers can stay in America and work toward legal immigration status.
The H-2A program allows employers to hire temporary foreign workers to fill seasonal labor shortages if there’s a lack of available domestic workers. But a recent survey by the National Council of Agricultural Employers found that 72 percent of program users said the guest workers arrived an average of 22 days after they were needed, making the program too slow and cumbersome for the time-sensitive harvest season. That’s why growers largely avoid the program, which provided 64,000 visas in 2008, its peak year.
Though there are proposals in Congress to revise the H-2A program, lawmakers aren’t likely to take any action this year.
Because labor makes up nearly half the production cost for fruit and 35 percent for vegetables, farmers who face labor shortages are switching to crops that require less manpower, such as corn, soybeans, cotton and peanuts.
“You don’t make as much money on them, but you don’t put nearly as much into them and you don’t have the labor costs,” said Frank Gasperini, the executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers.
Torrey’s farm has followed the trend. She grows field corn, which is used for grain, on 3,500 acres today, up from 2,000 acres 10 years ago. Labor accounts for only 5 percent of corn’s production cost.
“It’s pretty common around here,” she said. “I’m talking like in a four-county area going 70 miles each way, you don’t see new packing sheds. You see shiny new grain bins.”
The shortage affects not only farmers but also their surrounding communities, as convenience stores, gas stations and restaurants that cater to farmworkers begin to close or to shed employees.
“Now, when the hospital foundation calls and says, ‘You know, you gave us $50,000 last year. Can we count on you for that again this year?’ The answer will be no, because I don’t have those 100 employees there anymore. You can only have $5,000,” Gasperini said.
A University of Georgia survey estimated that worker shortages cost Georgia growers $70 million in crop losses last year, when 12,000 seasonal workers were needed for the harvest and only 7,000 came. Many Hispanic labor crews avoided the state because of its new immigration law, House Bill 87, which allowed police to check the immigration status of anyone they suspected might be in the country illegally.
Republican Gov. Nathan Deal appealed for jobless Georgia residents to work the fields, but transportation to rural areas proved difficult, as did the grueling nature of the work. Across the country, American-born workers have been unwilling to work the fields.
“A harvester has to be conditioned like an NFL football player has to be conditioned to get out on the field,” said Charles Hall, the executive director of the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association. “You’re working eight to 10 hours a day in the heat, stooping, lifting and picking. It’s not an easy job.”
Hall said Georgia’s labor problem hadn’t been as bad this year because a federal judge had blocked enforcement of House Bill 87’s “show-me-your-papers” provision. But the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to allow immigration-status checks by police in Arizona could open the door to renewed enforcement in Georgia.
"We know that some people (in rural southeast Georgia) have been stopped and asked for papers during minor traffic violations and ended up in deportation centers here," said Debra Sabia, a political science professor at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro.
Sabia said the news traveled through the grapevine.
“All it takes is stories of police creating roadblocks and asking for licenses, insurance cards and identification, and word will quickly spread along the migrant labor stream and people will avoid coming here to work,” she said. “And that’s exactly what has happened in our fields."